NEW DELHI: If tiger numbers were alarming, there is worse news for another species. In its annual Red List of threatened species, published on Wednesday, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has uplisted the gharial from “endangered” to “critically endangered” following the discovery that there are less than 200 breeding adults left in the wild. This is the lowest low for the species since the early 1970s, say conservationists.
The reason behind the depleting numbers, the IUCN report says, is excessive irreversible habitat loss in India and Nepal following the construction of dams and irrigation canals.
Like the tiger, the gharial too is a story of conservation efforts gone awry, say experts. When Project Crocodile was launched, there were an estimated 200 gharials left in the world. A programme of re-introduction to the wild brought the adult population up to around 400 in 1997. Deemed a success, Project Gharial was stopped. Thirty years and a massive crocodile conservation exercise later, the gharial numbers have plummeted to just 182 in 2006. That’s almost half the population wiped out in a decade, notes the IUCN.
“The Indian gharial faces a threat both from fishing and illegal activities like sand-mining that have destroyed its nesting areas, says Sandeep Behra, who heads the WWF’s gharial conservation programme and is a member of the Gharial Multi-Task Force set up to assess population trends.
In India, the breeding population of the gharial is found in two sites — the Chambal and a five-km stretch of the Girwa River in Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary on the Indo-Nepal border. Interestingly, it was the National Chambal Sanctuary that was the focus of intense gharial conservation efforts during the days of Project Crocodile. The credit though goes largely to dacoits who by making sure no one trespassed into their territory gave the species some protection.
It was when the bandits started to give themselves up in the 1990s that the mafia stepped in, resorting to illegal mining to feed the construction boom.