Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Road from Perdition

'Damned Gharial' in Tehelka Feb 3, 2008

The ungainly body and short stubby legs are improbable attributes for the role of Sylvester Stallone in ‘Cliffhanger’. And yet, the gharial has been hanging on the precipice of existence by its toenails for the last few decades. The future survival of an animal, that outlived the dinosaurs, depends on whether we can give it a leg up over the abyss.

The gharial’s body plan is fine-tuned to make the best use of the habitat it had chosen for its final staging ground. It is a specialist like no other crocodile in the world; deep rivers to live in, sand banks on which to bask and lay eggs, and plenty of fish to eat are prerequisites. This choosiness ensured the survival of the gharial into the 20th century.

Today, however, these very same adaptations have morphed into the three nails on the gharial’s coffin. Developing India built mega-dams across gharial rivers, silting them up. The building boom that began in the 1990s in nearby cities like Delhi and Agra is fed by sand from the gharial’s nesting grounds on the Chambal. Fishermen deplete its prey while fishing nets become underwater curtains of death.

In the 1970s it was estimated that between Nepal and India less than 200 gharial survived. Within this narrowed range, the 425 km long unsullied stretch of the Chambal was the best gharial real estate. An ambitious crocodile conservation project was launched by the Government of India with collaboration from the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Project Crocodile was touted as one of the most successful conservation programs in the world and yet no one has ever heard of it. Crocodile sanctuaries were declared, a crocodile research institute set up and captive rearing stations built. Somewhere along the way, conservation action ground down to lethargy and ineptitude.

In any conservation program, habitat protection is the first commandment, but it could not be enforced in the Chambal ravines, ruled by bandits and warlords. The other most significant habitat, the River Girwa in the Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, remains stable for now. Obtaining local people’s support is the second commandment, but it was deemed too difficult to do under the circumstances. Having thrown out the two most important tenets of conservation, what did Project Crocodile do? Over the years it released thousands of expensively captive reared gharial into the rivers – the Chambal, the Girwa, the Ken, the Son and the Mahanadi. The released animals were not monitored so no one knows what became of them. But annual census figures showed a steady climb upwards. That’s like adding apples to a basket and then counting them! In fact that was the recommendation of the gharial Population and Habitat Viability Assessment – to continue releasing captive reared gharial indefinitely. When the number of gharial in the Chambal reached 1200 in the mid 1990s, crocodile conservationists, biologists, bureaucrats and politicians basked in their achievement – the species had been saved from extinction. But beneath this rosy picture, the gharial was barely hanging on.

The Government of India stopped further funds for the captive rearing project but the State governments persisted with the releases on a smaller scale. The routine annual census stopped. And then in 2004, the hollowness of gharial conservation thus far was revealed. Dr. R.K. Sharma of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department set off the alarm – gharial numbers were plummeting. With fewer apples being added to the basket, the numbers didn’t look so optimistic anymore. Surveys of 2006 came up with less than 200 breeding adults between India and Nepal thereby putting the gharial on the Critically Endangered category of the 2007 Red List. A task force called the Gharial Conservation Alliance (GCA) was formed with the express purpose of reversing this dismal trend. Realizing that river dolphins, otters and water birds had similar needs, the GCA in partnership with WWF-India set up River Watch. Instead of focusing on individual species and working separately, River Watch intends to look at the big picture – the state of our rivers.

Even as this initiative was being galvanized and strategy chalked out, came the horrific news – more than 80 out of about 320 subadult and adult gharials have mysteriously died over a 70 km stretch of the lower Chambal in little more than a month: a 25% mortality in the 2 - 2.5 metre size class! The epicenter of this disaster is near Etawah (Uttar Pradesh), at the confluence of the Yamuna and Chambal. Postmortem reports indicated liver cirrhosis, cause unknown. Subsequent reports pointed to the presence of heavy metals in the tissue samples. Across the river in Madhya Pradesh, a concerned Mr. Suhas Kumar, the Chief Conservator of Forests, circulated the reports to international crocodile veterinarians who ruled out liver cirrhosis. Lethal levels of heavy metals should have killed the other animals sharing the same waters – fish, birds, otters and river dolphins – but it did not. A pathogen is suspected, but where did it come from and why are only large gharials affected and not the vulnerable juveniles, remain unanswered questions.

A team of international croc veterinarians are expected to arrive later this month to assist Indian colleagues in finding the cause of this catastrophe and to suggest ways of stemming it. If the gharial overcomes this crisis, it will become the touchstone of our commitment to treat rivers as a precious resource. The GCA is in desperate need of funds to galvanize action for the gharial. For further information please contact