Frequently mistaken for a crocodile or alligator, gharials live in the northern rivers of the Indian subcontinent and became critically endangered. Now, thanks to successful conservation efforts, the gharials' future is looking considerably rosier.
This unique reptile is believed to have split from all other crocodilians around 60 million years ago and has developed an elongated snout tipped with a distinctive bulge. All the better for feeding on their diet of fish and crustaceans.
In the river ecosystems of Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Bhutan, it's estimated that gharial populations declined from approximately 10,000 individuals in 1946 to fewer than 250, a drop of 97 percent within three generations, relegating them to the critically endangered category on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list.
Conservation efforts began in the 1970s when the Indian government initiated a crocodile breeding and management project with the support of the UN. The National Chambal Sanctuary was established and captive-bred gharials were released into the Chambal River, which cuts through ravines and hills in the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.
Today, with about 1,800, the Chambal river holds the largest population of gharials. The success of the Chambal project is now being replicated in the Indian state of Bihar in the Gandak River which flows down from the mountains of Nepal into India. The Gandak is ideal for gharials as its sandbanks and wetlands are good breeding grounds for the fish on which they feed, so the captive-born and reared gharials which were released into it have flourished. Every year since 2016, fishermen have spotted gharial nests on the banks of the river.
The good news is that the effort to boost Gharial populations continues, representing a shining example of how humans have the ability to reverse decline and engineer recovery. Even if we caused the problem in the first place.