Measuring up to six metres long, the gharial is one of the largest crocodilians, a group that includes crocodiles, alligators and caimans. It is native to the northern Indian subcontinent and has a very distinctive long, narrow snout with over 100 sharp teeth, perfectly adapted for catching fish underwater. The common name, gharial, refers to the bulbous growth males have on the end of their snouts, which is thought to resemble an Indian earthenware pot called a ‘ghara’. Gharials are the most aquatic of all crocodilians, inhabiting deep areas of fast-flowing rivers and, due to weak legs, they are unable to move very easily on land.
While the gharial was formerly found in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, the species now only exists in small numbers in India and Nepal, in a mere two percent of its former range. In 1946, there were an estimated 5000-10,000 individuals yet by the 1970s they faced extinction, with only 300 remaining. In 1979 measures were taken to initiate a captive breeding programme and, although it managed to save the species from extinction, between 1997 and 2006 their numbers suffered once again, dropping to less than 200 breeding adults.
Traditionally, the biggest threat to the gharial was hunting. They were commonly killed for their skins or the supposed aphrodisiac effect of the males’ snout appendage, and gharial eggs were collected for their medicinal properties. Hunting continues today but now the biggest threats to the gharial’s survival is loss of habitat and pollution. Rivers in the area are continuously encroached upon for human development and dammed or drained for irrigation, all of which add to the pollution and siltation of the water. In 2007, over 100 dead gharial were found in India’s Chambal River, thought to be poisoned by toxins.
In 2016, 3000 gharial eggs hatched, the highest number since conservation efforts began in 1979. While many of these may not survive until adulthood, the increase nonetheless demonstrates that their numbers are improving. However, conservationists urge that the focus needs to shift from captive breeding to protecting what remains of the gharial’s habitat.