About 250 gharials have been released in the river since 2014
Forty gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) were released in the Ghaghara river by the Bahraich forest division of Uttar Pradesh in the first week of May, amid the nationwide lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The animals were brought from the Kukrail Gharial Rehabilitation Centre in Lucknow after being tagged.
“The Ghaghara acts as an important aquatic corridor for gharials in Uttar Pradesh. The river is a major left bank tributary of the Ganges. This year, eight males and 32 females were released,” Shailendra Singh, who heads the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) India, which supported the entire exercise, said.
Gharials are critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Species. The species is also listed under Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. TSA is involved in various conservation works across the country.
About 250 gharials have been released in the Ghaghara since 2014 according to Singh, barring 2017-2018.
“Considering their survival rate, we believe that about 1,000 gharials can be released,” he added. The number of gharials is low in the wild and the species is facing a huge risk of extinction despite ongoing conservation efforts.
In the wild
A major chunk of gharials in India is found in the Chambal river, which has about 1,000 adults. However, there are satellite populations of less than 100 adults in the Girwa river (Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh), the Ramganga river in Jim Corbett National Park and the Sone river.
“Tracking during post monsoon helps us to understand the dispersal and survival of the animals. Also, it will aid our understanding regarding the percentage of wild population versus gharials released after captive breeding,” Singh said.
Since the lockdown started, many animals had come out of their habitats, Manish Singh, Divisional forest officer (DFO) of Bahraich, said.
Manish Singh had earlier facilitated gharial release twice in the Gandak, which is also a tributary of the Ganga. Once released, the animals find suitable habitats and settle down.
“The Ghaghara is one of the cleanest rivers of India as there is hardly any pollution. Gharials are a good indicator of clean river water,” the DFO added.
The Uttar Pradesh forest department has been trying to increase the gharial population over the years. It has been collecting eggs as part of the process.
Once the eggs hatch at the Kukrail centre, the animals are released in the Ghaghara, Gandak and Chambal rivers.
Gharials prefer sandbanks as suitable habitats. Currently, they are facing several threats. Dogs as well as humans often destroy their eggs. To conserve the population, the eggs are collected and hatched at Kukrail.
Like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar too is releasing gharials in the Valmiki Tiger Reserve as part of restocking the wild population. Unlike crocodiles, gharials do not pose any danger to humans.
Way back in the 1970s, there was an all-India survey of crocodiles and gharials where it was found that gharials had declined considerably across the country, Neeraj Kumar, conservator of forests, endangered species project, Lucknow, said.
In this context, breeding centres were established, one in Uttar Pradesh and another in Madhya Pradesh.
Eggs laid in natural habitats are collected and allowed to hatch in these centres. The hatchlings are released after they reach a certain age. “As many new born hatchlings are washed away due to floods, this increases their chance of survival,” Kumar added.
Gharial numbers had definitely gone up and the primary habitat was the Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary, Kumar said. This is where the reintroduction programme started.
“When the population built up in Chambal, breeding was being done on a limited scale. But it has again picked up in the past two years up under the aegis of the Namami Gange programme. Now, we rear 500 eggs per year,” Kumar said.
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