Although many may not survive their first year, conservationists are delighted that their efforts have borne fruit
More than 5,000 gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) were born in the latest hatching season (June-July, 2019) at the National Chambal Sanctuary on the tri-junction of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, officials said.
“In one range of the sanctuary, many eggs hatched and 4,141 gharials were born. In another range, 1,202 gharials took birth,” Sarvesh Bhadauria, a forest official in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh, which is part of the sanctuary, said.
Apart from gharials, 400 mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) also hatched out of eggs in the two months at the sanctuary and will soon be released into the river.
The numbers are significant and have enthused forest officials and environmentalists. The number of gharials was 905 in 2012 and increased to 1,896 in 2019. On the other hand, the sanctuary had 205 mugger crocodiles in 2012 and their number rose to 706 in the past seven years.
“Gharials were vanishing from the river. But we took steps for their conservation and are now happy with the result,” said Bhadauria.
The numbers are the culmination of a long-term conservation project to save the gharials from extinction.
The Chambal, which is roughly 1,000 kilometres long, originates in western Madhya Pradesh and meanders its way through Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh before joining the Yamuna in Jalaun, a district in south Uttar Pradesh.
“The course of the Chambal was through forests or ravines or scrubland, away from human settlement. Hence, wildlife flourished in the river and on its banks. Gharials were found in abundance but their number alarmingly reduced to 200 in 1975,” Rajeev Chauhan, an environmentalist, said.
“It was then, towards the late seventies, that an area of land along the course of the river was declared as a sanctuary,” added Chauhan, who is with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.
The sanctuary has it limits in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and spreads over an area of 5,500 sq km. The forest departments of the three states are responsible for the sanctuary.
Wildlife once again started flourishing in the Chambal as the land around it became a sanctuary. Gharials, mugger crocodiles, as many as nine species of turtles and over 200 species of birds could be spotted in the sanctuary.
But, in 2007 it was noticed that the wildlife in it was alarmingly depleting.
“There were many reasons. Poaching had started taking place, illegal sand mining was on, pollution in the river was rising, general human intrusion was increasing. The natural habitat conducive for wildlife was being destroyed,” said Chauhan.
The forest department of the three states became alarmed and alert. So did the environmentalists.
“Immediate steps were taken. Illegal sand mining was checked, action was initiated against poachers. Those polluting the river were heavily were punished or fined,” said Chauhan.
He believes that the steps taken saved the lives of many female gharials. “Now they have become adults and laying eggs,” he said.
A constant vigil
The struggle is far from over.
“Gharials and mugger crocodiles build nests on the banks to lay eggs. We have kept a vigil on the nests and protected them from intrusion by wild animals or human beings,” said Bhadauria. Wild pigs, dogs and predatory birds often prey on the baby reptiles.
Alongside manual vigilance, the forest department is also using technical devices to keep an eye on the young reptiles. It has installed cameras and is also using drones to protect the nascent wildlife.
Chauhan is also concerned about the future of the Chambal. Apart from the aquatic life, the sanctuary and the course of the river were also once rich in wildlife. The scrubland was once home to jackals.
“Leopards have also been spotted in the sanctuary but in most of the instances they were dead because of electrocution,” he said, hinting at human-wildlife conflict.
Moreover, while the forests, scrubland and ravines by the river were uninhabited earlier, the scenario has begun to change.
“The topography of the course of the river is changing because people have started cultivation on what was considered a natural ravine or a wasteland. This does not augur well for the wildlife habitat,” said Chauhan.
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