Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The gharial on the brink

Published in 'The Hindu' 8th October 2006

Wispy tendrils of mist rose delicately from the water surface, tinged gold by the dawn. Your breath hangs as little clouds of vapour as you gaze upon the Girwa River on a cold winter morning. A trio of hollow clapping sounds from the other side of the river, half a kilometer away tells you that an adult male gharial is advertising his presence. It is the height of the breeding season. The place seems trapped in a time in early history when man was still clad in animal skins. It is only as the sun rose higher and burns the mist off the water that the world comes into focus with appalling clarity. The 5 km stretch of the Girwa River in Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the only three wild breeding sites left in the world for the most unique of all the crocodiles. This gentle crocodile has become the most endangered large animal in India, twenty times more so than the tiger.

For the thirty years of Project Crocodile, initiated and supported by a joint Government of India/Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/UNDP programme, the National Chambal Sanctuary was the focus of intense gharial conservation efforts. The only Protected Area spread over three states – Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh – the Chambal has over 100 km of river that can be called suitable gharial habitat. So it was natural for conservation attention to be centred here.

Bandits as protectors

Traditionally, the Chambal has been protected by its reputation. The local residents lived under the thumb of the dacoits, and for a long time Chambal’s infamous icon was Phoolan Devi. The ravines afforded effective protection to bandits who successfully evaded any attempt to capture them. Gharial protection could then afford to be minimal only; the dacoits made sure no outsiders trespassed. Dedicated crocodile researchers from the State Forest Departments collected wild nests to be incubated at Kukkrail in UP and at Morena, MP. The resulting hatchlings were reared for three years, protected from predators under a programme hatched by FAO consultant Bob Bustard. When they reached a metre in length, they were released in the wild.

Over 5000 such juveniles were introduced into the Protected Areas of Chambal, Girwa, Son, Ken and Mahanadi rivers. Surveys to monitor how the gharial were faring had to be conducted only during the day. On the Chambal river at least, nights belonged to the bandits, but not for long.

The mafia takes over

When the notorious Chambal bandits started to give themselves up in the 1990s, the inadvertent protection that the National Chambal Sanctuary enjoyed began to unravel. The state police machinery didn’t sweep into the void created by the brigands and soon the Chambal became the hangout of the other anti-social element, the mafia. While the bandits of the earlier era were happy to sponge off the rich landlords and traders, the mafia exploited the natural resources. While one group excavated sand to feed the building boom in cities like Delhi and Agra, another poached freshwater turtles. While the sand-miners destroy basking and nesting sites, the turtlers kill gharial which get accidentally snagged by the thousands of vicious hooks. Fishing is banned in the National Chambal Sanctuary but there is no enforcement. Fishermen chop the snouts or kill gharials deliberately when they became helplessly entangled in their nets. Besides, fishing depletes the prey of the gharial, depressing the habitat’s ability to support larger numbers of the animal.

During the dry summer months, the river runs shallow as water is pumped to irrigate cucumbers and other crops. Barrages, dams, electricity pylons and other developments are driving the final nails in the river’s coffin. The Forest Department, charged with protecting the wildlife and resources of the Protected Area has no protection itself from the armed locals. Any outsider is liable to be kidnapped and held for ransom. Under these circumstances patrolling and protection has naturally been at a bare minimum. The Chambal is going down the drain and the future of gharials, turtles, river dolphins, otters and water birds looks bleak.

The Gharial Multi-Task Force

The first alarm bells rang in 2004, when researchers Dr. R.K. Sharma and Dhruva Basu compiled survey findings of the last ten years which showed a drastic decline in gharial numbers. Surveys conducted in 2006 reveal a worsening decline. At the recent meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, in France, the Gharial Multi-Task Force was set up with a Core Group consisting of all the main gharial researchers in India and Nepal, the only two countries where wild gharial survive. One of the first tasks of the Task Force was to assess the population trend of the gharial. Has it declined sharply enough to justify uplisting in the Red Data Book from Endangered to a Critically Endangered species?

Although the revision hasn’t been effected yet, the initial assessment is startling. The area once occupied by the gharial has shrunk by over 98%, and the numbers have plummeted by 97% in the last sixty years. In the 1940s between 5,000 and 10,000 gharials were found from the Indus river system in Pakistan to the Irrawady in Myanmar, covering 20,000 sq. km. Today about 200 adult animals occupy less than 250 sq. km. When Project Crocodile came into effect, there were an estimated 200 gharials of all sizes left in the world. Thirty years and a massive crocodile conservation exercise later, the gharial numbers are creeping down to their lowest low in the early 1970s. But now the pressures on gharial habitat have multiplied and quality of what remains is deteriorating. The question is can we achieve now what we failed to do then?

If gharials die, so do we

The gharial requires deep, free-flowing rivers unfettered by dams and barrages. The water has to be clean and clear for its fishy prey to breed. Gharial must have undisturbed sand banks to bask and nest. We are also talking here about an intact, protected river habitat, on which our own survival hinges. It’s not for nothing that the wise ancients depicted Ma Ganga astride the gharial.

Six years ago, the world saw through Project Tiger’s hollow claims of success. Today, India’s second largest species conservation programme, Project Crocodile, is in danger of being similarly discredited. What went wrong? The quick answer is that the ‘simple’ part of the job was admirably well done: 12,000 gharial eggs collected, incubated and hatched, over 5000 juveniles released into Protected Areas and sporadic monitoring done. But the ‘hard’ part was ignored: there was little or no effort to get the river people on the side of the gharial and the conservation movement. As a result today, there are 2 gharial left out of over 700 released in the Mahanadi river in Orissa! In the Girwa about 60 of all sizes survive while over 900 were released. The Chambal has fared marginally better with about 78 adults out of the over 3500 gharial released.

Despite years of conservation education we are today facing the worst environmental crisis in history. The only way to reverse this trend is for every citizen to put conservation at the top of the priority list. We need a rejuvenation of political will that will encourage and support conservation efforts of the State Forest Departments and NGOs. And to save the gharial what we need now is a holistic approach to river conservation. The ban on fishing and turtle poaching has to be enforced while at the same time working with local communities for alternate livelihood options. The inter-linking of rivers is predictably the worst thing that could happen to all our riparian wildlife and has to be appraised by hydrologists and biologists before we flush away all our river resources. The gharial, turtles and dolphins are not the only ones dependent on healthy rivers; our own survival depends on it.

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