regionally extinct in Myanmar
Our gharial, Shant, is fed fish like herring and saury. These are snapped up with a sideways swipe of its long, narrow jaws. Shant sometimes responds when his name is called. He’s also proven to be quick on the uptake during target training.
The gharial gets its name from its ‘ghara’, which means `pot’ in Hindi. This is a bulbous growth on the tip of the male’s snout with a cartilaginous lid on the nostrils that flaps during exhalation. The ghara amplifies the male’s hissing calls to attract females, making them audible from almost a kilometre away. Unfortunately, few mature males are now observed in the wild. Though gharials nest annually, some females in India were found to be nesting much less frequently.
Females lay their eggs in nests dug into sandy riverbanks. Though they remain in the water in the day, they visit and guard the eggs at night, throughout the incubation period of 60-80 days. They get very territorial near the nest, but will tolerate other females nesting nearby. The mother, sometimes the father as well, may help uncover the nest during hatching. Due to their unique snout and teeth, they may not be able to help their babies hatch or pick them up.
Mothers will protect hatchlings for several weeks or months. During this time, the hatchlings hang around in groups near their mother. The presence of the father may be tolerated, but he will not actively protect hatchlings. The young may sometimes rest on his back. Often, the rising waters of the monsoon prompt the separation of mother and young. The juveniles are washed downriver, away from their mother’s protection. Sadly, many young gharials do not survive this.
Large-scale sand mining for construction degrade the sand banks on which the gharials nest. Dams and irrigation diversions have resulted in perennial rivers drying up. Unlike other crocodilians, the gharial can’t walk overland to find other water sources. During the dry months, when gharials breed, riparian people, among the poorest in India, plant crops and herd livestock along the river, competing with the gharials for precious riverine real estate.
In the span of 60 years, their population has plummeted 98%. Since the 1970s, much money and effort has been spent on the reintroduction of gharials, with scant success. Besides the gharial, other freshwater species like the Ganges river dolphin, mugger crocodile and mahseer are also on the decline.