Critically endangered reptile hatchlings seen in Mahanadi river’s Satkosia gorge, a Ramsar site
Forest officials have spotted around 35 hatchlings of the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), a crocodile species, at the Satkosia gorge in the Mahanadi river in Odisha’s Angul district May 25, 2023. The species is unique to the Indian subcontinent and is critically endangered.
This is the third consecutive year of successful breeding of these reptiles in the natural habitat in the freshwater of the Mahanadi river. The river is the southernmost limit of the gharials’ home range in India, official sources said.
In the last two years, the hatchlings were spotted at a nesting site at Baladamara, close to Tikarpada in Satkosia Wildlife Division. “The baby gharials have been spotted at the same breeding site this year as well,” said Saroj Kumar Panda, divisional forest officer, Satkosia.
The tiny hatchlings, along with their mother crocodile, have been spotted from CCTV footage, installed by the wildlife officials near the gorge for surveillance of the eggs of the gharials.
“We are delighted as the gharial breeding took place in the natural habitat for the last three years in a row,” said Jitshatru Mohanty, a retired senior forest officer.
Gharial hatchlings playing with their mother crocodile in Satkosia gorge, a Ramsar site in Odisha. Photo Hrusikesh Mohanty
The gorge, a designated Ramsar site, is a narrow stretch of the river and is located within Satkosia Tiger Reserve, near Tikarapada. It is approximately 22 kilometres in length and part of Satkosia sanctuary covering an area of 795.59 square km notified by the Odisha government in 1976.
On May 22, 2021, 28 baby gharials were spotted in the area, reportedly for the first time after a gap of several years. The year after, 32 gharial hatchlings were seen on May 11, 2022. Around 10 to 15 of them were found in the gorge, said DFO.
Forest officials suspect that the fishing-eating crocodiles might have swum their way downstream of the river in search of prey. A fishermen’s net captured a juvenile gharial at Narasinghapur on May 25.
On March 5, 2022, forest officials rescued a 3.35 metre-long gharial near the Puri canal near Hansapal on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar.
The successful breeding of the gharial in the natural habitat was attributed due to the strict prohibition of fishing around 9 km downstream of the river since 2019, said Panda. “We are only allowing the fishermen of Tikarapada for the fishing using hooks, not by nets,” he said.
“We are monitoring the activities of the juveniles round the clock, with CCTVs near the gorge to prevent any harm inflicted by man or some other predators in the gorge,” said the DFO. Forest personnel are also patrolling the area at night to protect them.
The forest department has launched an awareness drive to save the crocodiles in over 300 villages spreading over five districts: Boudh, Angul, Cuttack, Sonepur and Nayagarh, sources said
According to the experts, mother crocodiles dig pits on the ground during March and April, lay eggs, and cover it with sand and soil. About a month before actual nesting, the mother may start exploring the nesting ground by scooping out a few “trial nests” without using these to deposit eggs.
The nets are located above the summer water level and are normally safe from inundation by monsoon floods. After about 75 days of incubation, before the river water starts rising, the hatchlings out and escape inundation, the experts said.
To avoid high spates of a flood, the mother escorts the hatchlings into creeks and nullahs that drain into the main river, they said.
Read more: Endangered gharials die mysterious death
The gharial is listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and also described as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
Their habitat is threatened because of human encroachment and fishing activities. They are genetically weaker than saltwater crocodiles and muggers, wildlife experts said.
Gharials caught accidentally in fishing nets are either hacked to death or have their snout chopped off by fishermen.
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