The return of the Gharial: a conservation success story

Earlier this year, it was excitedly announced that the gharial (a river-dwelling reptile species) had returned to India’s waterways. But why such a fuss about a creature that many often mistake for either a crocodile or alligator? The return of the gharial is being hailed as a victory for conservation, and represents efforts across the country to rectify the relationship between humans, the landscape, and the wildlife living alongside them in it.

At the start of the 20th century, it was common to see these scaly creatures along the Chambal and Yamuna rivers in India. Despite similar appearances, these reptiles are a separate species to the crocodile and alligator, and are only found in these specific regions. This is why, in 1970 when they started to disappear from the landscape scientists began to investigate. It was soon reported that there had been a 96-98% decrease in population size from 10,000 individuals in 1946 to fewer than 250 in 2006, and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) labelled the species critically endangered.

What caused the decline?

There are a number of threats faced by the gharial which contributed to its decline.

  • Becoming entangled in fishing nets or ensnared by hooks laid by turtle poachers
  • Being hunted for their skin and as trophies, and for use in traditional medicine
  • Habitat destruction due to mining

What was done to protect the species?

In 1970, the Indian government initiated a crocodile breeding and management project which helped populations to bounce back, with 1,095 individuals being counted in 1992. Since then, the project has introduced groups of gharials back into the Chambal river, with so much success that the methods have been replicated elsewhere such as the Gandak river in Bihar.

Efforts to put a stop to illegal fishing and mining activity upstream have meant that the number of gharials caught in fishing nets has decreased over time, and the quality of river water and subsequent breeding success of the gharial began to improve.

Fast forward to 2020, and the sucess of conservation efforts has been compounded by a decrease in pollution and human activity owing to lockdown across the country. This quiet time has allowed the waters of the Chambal and the Gandak to clear, improving the habitat of the gharial. In June conservationists announced the third consecutive year of successful gharial breeding in the Gandak river – a welcome message to come from otherwise turbulent times.

What does this mean?

This conservation success story is a lesson in human-wildlife conflict turning to coexistence. The gharial had been increasingly threatened by human activity, but in enforcing protective legislation and encouraging communities to respect and conserve their landscape, conservationists have educated people on the impact that their actions can have on local biodiversity.

The return of the gharial signals improved relationships between humans and wildlife and also an improved understanding of the impact of maltreatment of nature. It also brings with it benefits for other wildlife as it enrichens local biodiversity and improves ecosystem health.