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Gharial

Gharial crocodile. Gavialis gangeticus. India. / ©: Gerald S. CUBITT/WWF-Canon
Gharial crocodile. Gavialis gangeticus. India.
© Gerald S. CUBITT/WWF-Canon
Scientific Name: Gavialis gangeticus

Estimated Population
About 1200 gharials survive in the wild in India and less than 100 in Nepal. About 1000 gharials are also being reared in various zoos and captive centres.

Habitat and Distribution
Gharials were once widely distributed in the large rivers that flow in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. These include the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Mahanadi-Brahmani-Baitrani river systems of Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. They are also thought to have been found in the Irrawady River of Myanmar. Today, their major population remain in three tributaries of the Ganges River: the Chambal and the Girwa Rivers in India, and the Rapti-Naryani River in Nepal. The gharial reserves of India are located in three States – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Gharials reside exclusively in river habitats with deep, clear, fast-flowing waters and steep, sandy banks. Adult gharials prefer still, deep pools, formed at sharp river-bends and river confluences and use sandy banks for basking and breeding. Young gharials are found in much shallower, rapid flowing stretches in the water.

Unique Characteristics
One of the largest of crocodilians, which can grow to 7 m in length, the gharial has a thick skin covered with smooth epidermal scales that do not overlap. The snout of the gharial is uniquely the thinnest and most elongated among all the crocodilians. In addition, the adult males sport a large bulb at the tip of their snout called the 'ghara'. It is also the most aquatic of all crocodilians which never moves far from the water. Females lay their eggs in steep, sandy river banks. Unlike other crocodiles, the gharials feed on warm-blooded species and even the largest gharial adults feed exclusively on fish, which they catch between the pointed interlocking teeth of their long jaws.

Conservation Challenges
Less than 400 adults of the critically endangered gharial survive in the world today. Gharials, which once almost became extinct because of hunting for their valuable skins, are today threatened by destruction or intense human pressure on their habitat. In some places their eggs are stolen for eating while many young gharials die every year by accidentally getting trapped in fishermen's nets.

WWF-India's involvement
WWF is spearheading the Riverwatch Movement that aims at conserving the biodiversity and habitat of our rivers. It will work with a variety of departments, agencies and institutions to achieve this by providing them with technical and material support.

Other Challenges
Forest departments, which are primarily responsible for the conservation of wildlife in our country, and similarly the wildlife of our rivers as well, face a severe shortage of financial, human, material and technical resources, preventing the formulation and implementation of effective long-term management of the gharial reserves. The most important of these reserves, the Chambal River – which mainly demarcates the boundaries between the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – prevents coordination between forest authorities of these States, necessary for its proper control and management.