They may not be as fierce-looking as their larger reptile cousins but when you get up, close and personal, the fish-eating gharial of Chitwan is impressive nonetheless.
Instead of huge ominous maws, you have a foot-long slender snout that has more than 100 razor sharp teeth. The gharial prefers to eat fish and that is why people have taken advantage of their meekness and brought them to the brink of extinction.
In Nepal, their dwindling numbers went unnoticed until 1976 when some Indian conservationists came to ask for gharial eggs.
They had less than 100 gharials left in the Ganges but here in Nepal we hadn't yet bothered to count ours. "We were quite ignorant of the danger our gharials were facing and we were selling gharial eggs for Rs 100 each to India," recalls Tirtha Man Maskey, director general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC).
In 1977, the Indians came back but Nepalis had grown smarter. "We agreed to give them the eggs free-of-charge on the condition that they give us 50 percent of the hatchlings," says Maskey. The Indians agreed, the eggs were hatched in Chitwan and taken to India. "When we called to enquire about our share of hatchlings, they told us they were all dead," adds Maskey. Not so smart, after all.
Learning its lesson, Nepal started its Gharial Conservation Project with Frankfurt Zoological Society's help in Kasara, Chitwan. Fishermen who formerly poached eggs from gharial nests were hired in the conservation work. An average gharial egg weighs 160 g and makes one whole meal, making it an easy substitute for the river-dwelling Botes of Chitwan who believe that the eggs cured headache, TB and other diseases.
A maximum of 60 eggs in one gharial nest and a minimum of 20 eggs have been recorded in Nepal. The eggs are collected, hatched in artificial conditions and the young gharials reared in ponds until they reach two metres in length. They are then released into Rapti and Narayani rivers.
In 1981, the first batch was released with transmitters to monitor their movement. Since then, more than 500 gharials have been set free every year.
The gharial population has increased but has not been stable. They are distributed in the Karnali, Babai, Narayani and Sapta Kosi rivers. Though the captive rearing program is a success, the pollution of the rivers, construction of dams, use of seines and gill net for fishing have affected the gharials. Fewer fishes mean less food for them because they have to compete with the fishermen in the area, who also steal their eggs.
According to an IUCN study, only seven percent of the released gharials survive. To check this, DNPWC in collaboration with Conservation des Esp?ces et des Populations Animales and Ferme aux Crocodiles Pierrelatt? of France began a radio-telemetry system to monitor gharials. They started out to investigate the reasons for the disappearance of the last gharials.
In March 2002, two male and eight female gharials from the program were measured, marked with notches and released implanted with Indexel radio-transmitters equipped with electronic chips for individual frequencies. By the end of the month, most of them had travelled downstream and finally moved to Indian rivers.
Last November, 10 more gharials were released with another 10 this February. They were marked with the same code. Nearly 70 gharials are now living in the rivers of Nepal.
It is clear that for the survival of gharials, bilateral coordination is needed between the two countries. As for other endangered species that have transboundary ranges, a long-term conservation and management strategy between India and Nepal is critical otherwise both countries will lose their rare wildlife.
"We need to educate the people about gharials and their importance in biodiversity, gharials could also become an important part of ecotourism in the tarai," says Antoine Cadi of No? Conservation who has worked for five years with the Gharial Conservation Program. The buffer zone concept of crocodile farming that was a hit in Papua New Guinea may need to be replicated in Nepal.