The spotting of a female gharial's nest in Odisha underlines the state's efforts to revive the critically endangered species

·7 min read

By Tazeen Qureshy

On 22 May, a forest protection team of Satkosia wildlife division was on its usual patrol duty when they spotted a nest of a female gharial with 28 hatchlings on the banks of river Mahanadi in Odisha. In a first in over four decades, a gharial had bred in the wild, making it a breakthrough moment for hundreds of forest officials, experts and local communities who were involved in the conservation efforts.

Immediately, the higher-ups were informed and they assigned special protection and research teams to monitor the condition of the hatchlings.

The efforts to create a conducive habitat for the natural breeding of the critically endangered species had first started in 1975 by the forest department in collaboration with the Nandankanan zoological park in Bhubaneswar. But, the success came only this year. In the 1980s, some nests were found, but no hatchlings were spotted.

"This instance of a female gharial breeding under natural conditions has given hope to Odisha's conservation efforts. Over the last 45 years, we had taken up several initiatives, some of which worked and some did not. But this instance gives us hope that we are on the right track and things should go uphill from here," Sudarsan Maharana, Advisor to Odisha's Crocodile Conservation Project, told Mongabay-India.

A screengrab of mother gharial with hatchlings. Photo by Odisha Forest Department via Mongabay-India
A screengrab of mother gharial with hatchlings. Photo by Odisha Forest Department via Mongabay-India

A screengrab of mother gharial with hatchlings. Photo by Odisha Forest Department via Mongabay-India

The early efforts to breed gharials

The Satkosia gorge, where the river Mahanadi cuts across the Eastern Ghats in Odisha, is a natural habitat for freshwater crocodilian species especially the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and the mugger (Crocodilus palustris). The gorge spans 22 kilometres, which is part of the Satkosia Tiger Reserve's core area.

In the early 1970s, the gharial population in Satkosia gorge had drastically come down mostly due to overfishing and poaching in the area. As part of the early conservation efforts, Odisha state officials proposed captive breeding of gharials in the Nandankanan zoo, where, the gharials would later be released into the gorge. As the gharials collected from the Mahanadi system in the 1960s were part of the same nest (siblings), some hatchlings were brought from Nepal for captive breeding.

A more integrated and strategic approach was initiated only in 1975, as a part of a joint initiative by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. A country-wide conservation effort to protect all the three species of Indian crocodiles €" saltwater crocodile, mugger and gharial was adopted. The same year, the Gharial Research and Conservation Unit (GRACU) at Tikarpada was formed as a joint conservation initiative by the state government with technical support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and FAO.

Captive breeding once again started in Nandankanan zoo and the hatchlings were taken to Tikarpada for rearing. The gharials would be released when they were mature. Between 1977 and 2017, the forest officials released 867 gharials reared at Tikarpada and produced by captive breeding at Nandankanan zoo into the Mahanadi system. However, the census conducted in 2018 revealed a maximum of 12 gharials had survived.

Restructuring the conservation plan

Baffled by the low survival rate, in 2019, the forest department and the officials at Nandankanan zoo decided to form a team of postgraduate researchers to find out the cause of the low survival rate and also look for possible solutions. The Species Recovery of Gharial in River Mahanadi project tried to restructure the conservation efforts. It was an integrated effort taken up by the forest department as well as the zoo authorities.

"We decided to re-introduce more gharials from the zoo into the gorge. But to monitor their activities properly, we decided to fit radio transmitters on them. Thirteen gharials were released into the gorge in a phased manner. The research team on the ground minutely reported their activities to us on a daily basis," Rajesh Kumar Mohapatra, biologist at Nandankanan zoo, told Mongabay-India.

The team concluded that illegal fishing methods like blasting, change in river condition (the river had become more shallow), illegal sand mining practices and mugger-gharial conflict were the primary reasons for the low survival rate. The solutions were devised accordingly.

"Prior to 2019, we would release younger gharials around one metre in length into the freshwaters of Mahanadi. Younger gharials have a tendency to wander more and would often move as far as over 200 km upstream. As a result, they would enter the fishing zones and get tangled in the fishing nets. As entangling younger ones is difficult, they would often be beaten to death by the fisher community. But 2019 onwards, we released gharials that had grown to at least two meters in length. Since we could track their movement due to the transmitter, we would alert the local fishing community beforehand and restrict them from fishing in the area," he said.

The forest department, on the other hand, increased the vigil in a 400-km stretch of the Mahanadi river downstream of Hirakud reservoir. As many as 10 forest divisions were involved this time to protect the 400-km stretch. The local fishermen people were also asked to co-operate and a 10-km stretch between Baladamara and Tikarpada was identified as the 'gharial hotspot', and declared as a no-fishing zone.

"Fishing activities in upper and lower streams, as well as mugger depredation posed a challenge for us in gharial conservation. So, we increased patrolling and started awareness campaigns with local communities. If a gharial would get stuck in a net, we asked the fishermen to release it and provided compensation to them for the fishing net in exchange. Due to reduced anthropogenic pressure and strict surveillance by staff, the area of Satkosia gorge became feasible for breeding," Ravi Meena, Divisional Forest Officer Satkosia, told Mongabay-India.

Way ahead for gharial conservation in Odisha

This instance of natural breeding has emboldened the officials into more rigorous planning for reviving the species. Nandankanan has placed an order to procure satellite-based transmitters for more accurate data on the movement and activities of gharials. The 10-km stretch where the natural breeding occurred is now being monitored 24Ã - 7 by the officials of the Satkosia Wildlife division.

"The survival rate of gharials is usually 10 percent. So far, all 28 hatchlings are doing well. But even if a few manage to survive, this will be a good start. By now, we can confirm the 10-km stretch in Satkosia is the best nurturing ground for the species and we will plan our future conservation efforts based on the findings in this habitat," said Maharana.

But officials in the forest department continue to stress on people's cooperation in the exercise. The human-gharial conflict continues to remain a threat to the already critically endangered species. "We are facing a lot of challenges like illegal fishing even now. My team is constantly engaging with the local and fisher community for awareness programmes. Of course, we expect things to improve now," said Ravi Meena, DFO.

Experts say increased tourism activity in the core region of the reserve is still a threat and things will not improve unless appropriate measures are taken. Activist Biswajit Mohanty from the Wildlife Society of Odisha, a leading NGO in the state, points out the construction of a resort in the core area to promote eco-tourism will only hamper the conservation efforts.

"The natural breeding of hatchlings is a significant development but then there are several corrective measures still needed. The Wildlife Society of Odisha has raised complaints several times regarding a tourist resort constructed in Badmul, at one end of the Satkosia gorge. The resort is on the river bed itself and is a threat to the resident crocodile population and other wildlife. Motorised boats for tourist sightseeing are also being allowed in the core area. The survival rate of gharials is anyway low, and if such activities are allowed to take place, it will be difficult to revive their population."

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Mongabay-India is an environmental science and conservation news service. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons license.

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