April 13, 2024

Nepal releases 25 gharials into the wild, but concerns arise over timing and survival of species

Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation has released 25 critically endangered gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) in a tributary of the transboundary river Mahakali (also known as Sarda in India) on March 17. This action, the department says, is in line with plans to gradually reintroduce crocodiles into rivers where they historically roamed but became extinct due to various reasons.

However, researchers and conservationists who observed the release raised concerns about the transparency and timing of the process.

A total of 22 females and three males bred at the gharial breeding center in Chitwan National Park were released into the Chaudhar River, which runs through Shuklaphanta National Park, part of the Terai Arc landscape in far western Nepal. The last remaining gharial in the river was found dead in 1993.

“We welcome the translocation of gharials to the rivers where they historically roamed,” said crocodile researcher and conservationist Ashish Bashyal of the nonprofit Biodiversity Conservancy Nepal. “However, it could have been done in a better way,” he added.

A group of gharials resting, enjoying the sun at the Gharial Breeding Center in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi via Mongabay.

Gharials, known for their slender snouts that end in a swollen tip, formerly inhabited the Ganga River and its tributaries in South Asia. Currently, they are found in only a handful of rivers in the Ganga Basin, facing threats from dams and dams, fishing, infrastructure projects and poaching. Around 800 people are believed to remain in Nepal and India.

“We released the gharials into the Chadhar river based on the findings of a study commissioned by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation,” Shyam Kumar Shah, information officer and senior ecologist at the department who also led the aforementioned study, told Mongabay.

Since 1978, Nepal has implemented a program to breed gharials in captivity and release them to bolster the wild population. Authorities at Chitwan and Bardiya national parks collect eggs from riverbanks, create an environment conducive to incubation, and care for and feed the juveniles until they are released at approximately five years of age. This initiative was recognized for preventing local extinction of the species in Nepal.

“Our concern is that research has shown that the post-monsoon period (October/November) is the best time to release captive-bred gharials into the river,” Bashyal said.

Monsoon clouds, originating from the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, encounter obstruction from the Himalayan mountain range as they move north. This obstacle causes the formation of a low pressure band, releasing moisture in the form of rain at the foot of the mountains and in the Gangetic plain that covers Nepal, India and Bangladesh.

Called the “monsoon valley”, this strip runs between the northern foothills and the southern plains of India, bringing rain wherever it goes. The monsoon rains, which begin in June and end in September, contribute 60% to 90% of Nepal’s annual rainfall.

Two adult gharials at the Gharial Breeding Center in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi via Mongabay.

In a 2022 study led by veteran conservationist Bed Bahadur Khadka, it was found that crocodiles, known for their excellent swimming skills, catch and eat more fish during the pre-monsoon (April/May) and monsoon (July/August) seasons. ). when fish are abundant.

But during these times, newly released gharials may lack the experience needed to make the most of them, leading them to spend their energy hunting inefficiently and fail to gain weight before lean times.

This could result in a missed growth opportunity immediately after release, leaving gharials without ample reserves as they approach their first winter, the study suggests. On the other hand, releasing gharials after the monsoon or early winter could facilitate faster habitat adaptation and maximize growth potential as the warmer season approaches, according to the study. The Gharial Conservation Action Plan (2017-22) also states: “Generally gharials are released after the monsoon, after September. This allows them to adapt to natural conditions.”

Another gharial researcher and founder of the nonprofit Care for Nature, Ranjana Bhatta, raises the issue that government-commissioned studies of translocation efforts are rarely publicized. “The government relies on its internal studies to justify the translocation, but these studies are neither accessible to the public nor reviewed by independent experts,” he points out. “These studies must be made public so that people understand the reasons for the local extinction of gharials and how these issues are being addressed”, she emphasizes.

Similarly, concerns were raised about the timing of the translocation, raising questions about whether the exhaustion of allocated budgets was rushed. Nepal’s fiscal year ends in July, coinciding with the peak monsoon season, and it is common for government offices to engage in rapid spending to meet annual targets. This situation could also apply to translocation, considering that the opportunity for such efforts diminishes when monsoon rains begin.

Similarly, Nepal does not have an excellent track record of gharial translocations. Last February, 10 gharials were transferred from the Gharial Breeding Center in Chitwan to the West Rapti River in Banke National Park, which historically belonged to the species’ natural habitat.

Similarly, in 2022, 20 captive-bred gharials were released into the Koshi River. Between 1981 and 2017, a total of 1,246 gharials were released into various river systems in Nepal. However, significant populations of gharials are only found in Chitwan and the Babai River in Bardiya.

Bhatta noted that most gharials released in Nepal end up migrating to India and have difficulty returning upstream due to the construction of dams and dams on major rivers.

“I recently spoke to fishermen downstream of the Gandak Dam,” she said. “They mentioned seeing gharials swimming near the dam.” The situation worsens during the monsoons, as flooded rivers wash the gharials downstream, and they are unable to swim back due to the absence of fish ladders or other structures to aid their movement.

Carrying out releases without addressing the problem does not help achieve the desired goal of creating viable populations in different areas, Bhatta said. Mongabay.

A group of young gharials in the water at the Gharial Breeding Center in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi.

Another concern raised is the practice of offering a reciprocal gift whenever a national park provides animals for translocation to another park in Nepal.

For example, when buffaloes (Babalus arnee) were relocated from Koshi Tappu, rhinos were offered in exchange. Currently, Chitwan is anticipating blackbucks (Cervicapra antelope) from Shuklaphanta to a new fenced facility intended to attract tourists. This explains the urgency of sending gharials to Shuklaphanta, according to a government official who spoke anonymously to Mongabayas he was not authorized to interact with the media.

Ecologist Shah acknowledged that the current timing for gharial release was not ideal. However, he maintained that logistical constraints left no other option for release. “Our plan was to carry out the release in February, on the occasion of World Wetlands Day. But we were unable to do so due to lack of preparation,” he added. He mentioned that it is not the government’s custom to release internal reports. He also refuted any link between the release and reciprocal gifts or budgetary considerations.

This article was first published in Mongabay.

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