Crocodiles generally arouse fear, sometimes with good reason. However, in the case of the Gharial there is little reason at all for fear as this graceful crocodilian eats mainly fish and never turns man-eater. It is a very distinctive animal with narrow and elongated fragile looking jaws lined with conical teeth. Atop the tip of the upper jaw are the nostrils which in adult males are elaborated into a swollen protuberance. This cartilaginous bulb-like structure is called a “ghara” from a local word meaning earthen clay pots. The Gharial gets its name from this soft growth on its snout. The ghara develops in males as they approach sexual maturity in their teenage years; probably when around 15 years of age and about 4.5m in total length. This allows adult males to be readily distinguished from females; the only example of such sexual dimorphism in crocodilians.
In the pictures accompanying this article, the males are subadults who have not developed the enormous ghara which these animals are famous for. Gharials were once quite widespread in many countries in Asia ranging from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. But they have disappeared in many parts of their range and this critically endangered animal is now confined to a handful of free-living populations in just India and Nepal. In India they persist now in a few river systems, some of which have been the subject of captive bred reintroduction programmes. During British India times, gharials were abundant in all the rivers of North India, dozens lounging on sandbars throughout the Gangetic drainage. Nowadays, probably the best location for a reasonably good chance of seeing wild gharials is the stretch of river which extends around 200 km upstream from the confluence of the Yamuna and Chambal Rivers. The population here is internationally important as it is the only surviving relict living in an open river, free of dams and barrages throughout most of its 400 plus km length where gharials are now resident.
Gharials are so rare that many people have not even seen one in a zoo. It is a special animal, the longest of the crocodilians. A male gharial can nearly reach 3 metres in length. The crocodiles in terms of scientific taxonomy are actually an “order” of reptiles which has three “families” within it. One of the families is the Crocodylidae which amongst the sixteen or more species includes familiar species such as the Freshwater Crocodile (Mugger) and the man-eating Saltwater Crocodile. Another is the Alligatoridae which includes about half the living species, notably the alligators and caimans. The third family is the Gavialidae which includes the Gharial and the False Gharial; both long snouted distant relatives of the more numerous crocodiles, alligators, and caiman. Gharials are definitely the weirdest looking species alive today and one of the largest living crocodilians.
In December 2016 I was invited to the Uttar Pradesh Bird Fair which was led sponsored by the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department. A key partner to the event was the Chambal Safari Lodge owned and managed by Ram Pratap Singh and Anu Dhillon. Both of them are regular visitors to the British Bird Watching Fair (the largest wildlife tourism event of its kind in the world) and are very experienced in handling wildlife excursions. The lodge had arranged for delegates to go on a river safari with a few target species in mind. For many wildlife enthusiasts, top of the list were the Gharial and the South Asian River Dolphins. For birders, the list is wider with target species including the Indian Skimmer, River and Black-bellied Terns and River Lapwing.
The Chambal River is around 22 km or a 45 minute drive away from the lodge. To be honest I had not set my expectations very high as sought after species can be unpredictable and not easy to see unless one has several days to go in search of them. Barely had we arrived at the river, we had good and close views of a River Lapwing. It even performed a display for us by fluffing itself out and rotating on the same spot. I had never seen a species of lapwing performing such a display. As we approached the boathouse, on a little sand bank on the water we could make out a few gharial. Well, finding them so easily was a welcome surprise.
The lodge has a few boats which are licensed for river safaris and a group of us set out. The majority of the group were keen birders and included Pamela Rasmussen who is the lead author of one of the most important ornithological publications for the region, Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. The first edition published in two parts comprises Volume 1: Field Guide with 378 pages which has the colour plates and distribution maps. Volume 2: Attributes and Status is a door stopper of a book with 683 pages of detailed species descriptions and sonograms. Volume 1 was in my bag although I had to confess I was probably more excited at the prospect of getting close to a gharial than adding a few more species to my world birding list (birders call these “lifers”) on the river safari. Gharials are so special that even the birders were in favour of a closer look at the gharials on the sandbank island. But will they stay? All of the tourist boats for the river safaris are electric, and the gharials are used to people. The boat steered close and we had a better look although as a photographer the angle of light was not to my liking. But I knew that I would be coming back later and would have a boat all to myself and able to direct as I wished. The “birder-laden” boats travelled downstream watched by curious Ruddy Shelducks. Sunbathing on little islands were large Marsh Crocodiles or Muggers. The boats were low on the water and the crocodiles were on little islands a foot or so above the water, bringing them into eye-level view with us. Unfortunately, muggers, are man-eaters on occasion, but not as dangerous as their cousins, the Estuarine Crocodile or Salty. The Muggers were very familiar animals to me from Sri Lanka but this was the first time I had approached a large Mugger so close where the animal was at eye-level. Perhaps, the Chambal River is the best place in the world to photograph these ancient-looking animals.
The National Chambal Sanctuary sitting astride a length of the River Chambal covers a vast area of 5,400 square kilometres and provides a refuge for a wide assemblage of wildlife. Eight species of turtles, around 150 species of freshwater fish, over 300 species of birds and over 50 species of reptiles have been recorded here. The gharial is an apex predator and is important for maintaining a robust community of species which translates into economic benefits such as the fisheries which are downstream. A number of specialist wildlife tour groups stay each year at the Chambal Safari Lodge for the express purpose of one or more river safaris and bird watching walks on the river bank in the sanctuary to see endangered birds, reptiles and mammals which are best seen here.
We passed a few more gharials, including a few reasonably large individuals resting on the river bank. I noticed one of them had a transmitter on the back. It was clear that they were being studied. But by whom? Back at the lodge I was in discussion with Ram and Anu. They were hosting me to stay on for a few days after the Uttar Pradesh Bird Fair to explore the wildlife in and around the Chambal Safari Lodge. They were also going to arrange for me to meet an American ecologist, Dr. Jeffrey Lang, who was studying the gharial. Jeffrey I was told, had been fitting the gharial with transmitters and would tell me more.