The Critically Endangered Gharial

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The gharial may look like a dinosaur from another time, but it is actually a rare crocodilian species that live in the river systems of northern India and Nepal. During the time of the dinosaurs, several other species that looked similar to the gharial roamed the earth. Today, the gharial is the only one that remains.

The gharial is one of the largest crocodilian species on the planet. Males are slightly larger than females and may reach lengths of 16 feet and weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

This crocodilian is named for the bubble-like growth at the tip of its nose, which resembles a small pot. The Indian word for pot is “ghara.” The bulge at the end of the gharial’s nose is used to visually attract a mate and create bubbles, part of a mating ritual.

The gharial’s most prominent feature – its long, skinny snout – gives it a physical distinction from crocodiles and alligators. As with most adaptations in nature, the gharial’s snout serves a specific purpose. The gharial is able to quickly speed through the water and easily flick its head from side to side to catch fish thanks to its skinny snout, which smoothly slices through the water with little resistance.

Don’t expect to find the gharial outside of water very often. A full-grown gharial’s legs are not strong enough to lift its body off the ground, so it slides on its belly instead of walking on land. The gharial usually only leaves the water to bask or to nest. While basking, gharials commonly “gape” by opening their mouths for about 10 to 20 minutes. This allows the gharial to release excess heat. Since summers can be very hot in the gharial’s habitat, it spends much of its time completely submerged in water with just its head exposed.

Juvenile gharials feed on small animals and crustaceans. However, as they mature and their snouts begin to take shape, their diet shifts to fish. Because of the shape of their snouts, adult gharials survive almost exclusively on a diet of fish.

Gharial population declines are mainly due to habitat alteration. Irrigation and the creation of dams have drained many rivers. Since the gharial cannot walk on land and search for another home, the disappearance of rivers has seriously hindered wild populations. Sand mining also destroys sites for egg-laying. Today this endangered crocodilian occupies just two percent of its original range.

Illegal fishing is another concern. Though the remaining wild gharials live in protected parks and refugees, it is difficult to enforce the boundaries. Gharials often die when they get caught in fishing nets because they can’t swim to the surface to breathe. Illegal hunting and egg collecting by native people living within the gharial’s range are also contributing to the population decline. When gharials congregate on riverbanks during mating season, they become highly vulnerable to local people who use gharial meat and eggs for food and to make medicine.

Pollution is also a problem. When water becomes poisoned and dangerous to the gharial’s health, large die-offs occur.

All these factors have put the gharial dangerously close to extinction. Conservation work to save the gharial began in the 1970s. For almost 20 years, the Indian government-funded “Project Crocodile,” which included a headstart program that released 5,000 gharials into the wild. Project Crocodile came to an end in 1996 and was called a success, but left alone gharial populations plummeted over the next 10 years.

From 1997 to 2006, there was a 58 percent decrease in the global gharial population. Today as few as 200 adults of breeding age may be all that remain in the wild. That’s scary news and the reason that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species listed the gharial as critically endangered in 2007.

Now, conservationists are getting back to work. The released gharials from earlier headstart programs likely didn’t survive because of continued habitat alteration and human disturbance. Captive breeding programs now exist in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. These facilities alone can’t solve the gharial’s problems, though.

This time around, conservationists realize that in order to save the gharial, cooperation with people living near the gharial is vital. The Gharial Conservation Alliance (GCA) has several conservation programs underway – such as River Watch – that aim to improve the protection and management of wild gharials. The GCA’s goal is to carry out these programs while also being mindful of local people and educating those people about the gharial’s story along the way.

What can you do to help the endangered gharial?

  • Visit the Museum of Living Art (MOLA) to see a gharial for yourself. The Fort Worth Zoo is lucky enough to be one of just eight zoos in North America with gharials on exhibit.
  • Learn about conservation projects in your community.
  • Make a poster on an 8.5 X  11 piece of construction paper about your favorite endangered animal and mail it to the education department at the Fort Worth Zoo (1989 Colonial Parkway, Fort Worth, TX, 76110). The top three posters will be featured on my blog! Entries must be postmarked by July 1.

Just one more week of school then it’s time for a summer of adventures!  I hope you’re making plans to get outside and explore this summer – I know I am! How about we explore together? Print out your copy of Sam on the Go and let’s get outside! I can’t wait to share stories of my adventures and hear details about yours, too. Have a conservation story or idea to share or just want to say hi? Send a note to Sam’s Inbox (safarisam@fortworthzoo.org).

Until next time … happy exploring!

 

VOCABULARY

Adaptation: (noun) an adjustment or change to suit a new situation
Bask: (verb) to lie in warmth, usually the sun
Bulge: (noun) a bump
Captive breeding program: (noun) the process of animals producing offspring in a human-controlled environment
Congregate: (verb) to gather or group together
Contribute: (verb) to give or donate something to a larger supply
Cooperation: (noun) an agreement or act of working together
Crustacean: (noun) an aquatic animal covered with a hard shell or crust, such as lobster, shrimp, crab, etc.
Enforce: (verb) to compel people to be obedient to a rule
Excess: (adjective) extra
Exclusively: (adverb) only, selectively
Exist: (verb) to be or live
Expose: (verb) to uncover or present to view
Extinction: (noun) a coming to an end or dying out
Habitat alteration: (noun) change that takes place in an animal’s living space caused by natural or human processes
Headstart program: (noun) a program in which biologists bring eggs or recently born or hatch young into captivity to mature to a larger size that increases their survival chances when reintroduced into the wild
Hinder: (verb) to block or hold back
Irrigation: (noun) the supplying of water to land through the use of human-made canals, ditches, etc., in order to help crops grow
Mate: (noun) one member of a breeding pair
Mature: (verb) to grow and reach the point of full development
Mindful: (adjective) conscious, aware or careful
Native: (adjective) being from the place or environment in which a person was born or a thing came into being
Occupy: (verb) to take or fill up space
Plummet: (verb) to fall or plunge with great speed
Prominent: (adjective) sticking out, noticeable
Rare: (adjective) uncommon, unusual
Resemble: (verb) to look similar or alike
Resistance: (noun) a power or opposition that attempts to hold back or slow down an opposing force
Ritual: (noun) a ceremony or action passed down through generations and performed as a tradition in a culture or religion
Roam: (verb) to wander
Species: (noun) a group of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities
Specific: (adjective) precise, particular
Submerge: (verb) to go completely underwater
Vital: (adjective) essential, of extreme importance
Vulnerable: (adjective) easily targeted, likely to be attacked, unprotected, exposed

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