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Gharials are vanishing in Bardia National Park

Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) are a strange crocodilian, resembling the better known alligators and crocodiles in only the most basic ways. Their jaws are long and thin with conical teeth suitable for catching fish but not larger prey. The end of the male’s snout is decorated with a distinctive nasal “boss.” Males can grow up to twenty feet long and females sometimes reach 15 feet. 

Unfortunately, gharials are in a state of decline, disappearing throughout their historic range on the Indian subcontinent. It’s estimated that the unique crocodilian has lost 98 percent of its population since the 1940’s. This leaves the remaining individuals in the precarious position of being critically endangered. 

In late 2019, I visited the gharials of Bardia as part of my research for a book (to be released spring 2022). Bardia National Park – where this small holdout of gharials reside – is in western Nepal, a less popular destination for tourism.

Bardia is forest populated by a rebounding tiger population, along with rhinoceroses, elephants, monkeys and crocodiles. I came to Bardia under the advice of biologist Ashish Bashyall of Biodiversity Conservancy Nepal. Despite the wonderful park, gharials aren’t doing so well.  

Ashish is concerned about how many gharials remain in and around Bardia National Park. More importantly, how can they be encouraged to increase in numbers?

The research is based on work by Mr. Bashyall and other researchers studying gharials in the Bardia region. The report summarizes surveys along the Babai and Karnali Rivers inside and just outside of Bardia National Park. The scientists found 18 gharials in the region in 2017. By 2019, the count was 19.

The researchers concluded that the protected river areas support gharials, while areas outside of the park have available habitat but are avoided by the reptiles. Boulder quarries, sand mines and fishing seem to keep the animals away. 

According to the experts, future research is needed to look at younger individuals and hatching success. The researchers suggest that captive gharials could be released to grow the wild populations. 

Protecting a larger part of the Babai River and facilitating gharial movement upstream beyond a barrage are also important recommendations to help the Bardia gharials. 

The study is an important step in establishing a baseline for gharials upon which future success or failures can be measured. Hopefully, it will be a measurement of how small gharial populations became before rebounding.       

The research is published in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine & Freshwater Ecosystems.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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