Gharial – Gavialis gangeticus


The gharial (image: wikipedia)

Curious crocodile with long, bulbous snout

The word gharial is derived from the Hindi word, “ghara,” which means, “mud pot“. It was misread by Europeans who changed the word to gavial. Thus, Gavialis gangeticus is known as both gavial and gharial. The gharial is one of the largest of all crocodilian species; males reaching at least 5 – 6 metres in length. Their most distinctive feature is their very long, narrow snout, which becomes proportionally shorter and thicker as an animal ages.

Young gharials eat insects, larvae, and small frogs but mature adults feed almost solely on fish. Their snout morphology is ideally suited for piscivory; their long, narrow snouts offer very little resistance to water in swiping motions to snap up fish in the water. Their numerous needle-like teeth are ideal for holding on to struggling, slippery fish. Gharials will often use their body to corral fish against the bank where they can be more easily snapped up.

A well camouflaged gharial (image: wikipedia)

Gharials thrive in deep rivers. They are powerful swimmers but graceless on land, and will leave the water only to bask or to nest on sandy beaches. They were once distributed across approximately 7,700 sq mi of riverine habitat of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Irrawady river systems, but today their distribution is limited to only 2% of their former range.

Since 2007, the species is listed as Critically Endangered on the Red List of Threatened Species issued by IUCN. Alteration of habitat and water scarcity are one of main threat to the species: rivers that have been dammed; diverted for irrigation and other purposes leading to seasonal drying of once perennial rivers leaves the gharial powerless: unlike many other crocodilians gharial cannot walk overland to find water nor can they tunnel to escape the summer drought. Gharials have also been the victims of intensive fishing practices: the use of gill nets is rapidly killing many of the scarce adults as well as many juveniles. This danger is prevalent throughout most of the present gharial habitat, even the protected areas. Due to conservation efforts, more than 3000 young gharial have been released into the wild since 1981 but the release of captive gharials was not as successful as expected.

The gharial showing off its remarkable jaws (image: wikipedia)

Recently, more than 100 gharials died in India in the Chambal River from an unknown cause with gout-like symptoms. This recent death toll is expected to have decreased the number of breeding pairs to less than 400. Tests of the carcasses suggest the possibility of poisoning by metal pollutants.

Mystical beliefs have been attributed to the ghara in Nepal. Local tribesmen (like the Tharu) believed that a ghara placed under the pillow of an expectant women relieved and speeded labour. It was also believed that when the ghara is made into incense and burned in their fields, crops are freed of insects and other pests. Gharial eggs are believed to have medicinal value and to be an aphrodisiac. The dry powder of the gharial egg is thought to be effective as a cough medicine. The local tribesmen also used eggs in cooking. As the eggs do not taste all that great, they are mixed with flour and prepared as bread (More info here)

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