It’s being termed a miraculous revival that has taken wildlife experts and conservationists by surprise. And raised hopes about the survival of species that is now seriously threatened. The gharial — the long-snouted fresh-water crocodile — is back in the Hooghly. They have been spotted in numbers that are larger than had been expected when the reptiles were spotted after a gap of 60 years in downstream Hooghly two years ago. Now, a team of researchers has identified a breeding group at Purbasthali in Burdwan which signals that the gharials are finally multiplying.
A young gharial , about three feet in length, was trapped in a fishing net at Purbasthali on Saturday. About a half-a-dozen more followed it into the net. They were all pulled up, examined and released back into the river. “By last count, the number of gharials had shot up to around 180. Now, it seems the number is actually more than 250 since they are breeding. We have spotted even smaller ones, new-born gharials merely six inches long. This is great news for conservation since the reptile was taken to be extinct in eastern India for six decades,” said Tanmoy Ghosh, president of iRebel —an NGO that has been researching on gharials with support from the West Bengal Bio-Diversity Board and the Hooghly Zilla Parishad.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCNNR), less than 200 breeding gharials now survive in the wild. They started disappearing from their original habitat — the Ganges and the rivers of Bangladesh in the first half of the last century. Unrestricted fishing is held to be one of the major reasons behind this. Cultivation along the banks — where they lay their eggs — destroyed their breeding habitat. A study carried out in two phases since 2008 suggests that the reptiles are flocking back to Hooghly. It was carried out over an area of 500 km along the Hooghly from Farakka to Tribeni. “We have been spotting them off and on but not in large numbers. Now that bigger groups have been seen, it is clear that they are returning to the Hooghly. Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that they are breeding here,” said Pranabesh Sanyal, conservationist and former field director of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve.
The iRebel team has now stationed itself at Purbasthali. Fishermen and locals have been involved in the study.