In my previous article I wrote about my first safari on the River Chambal and how easy it was to make close approaches on the silent electric boats to both Gharial and Marsh Crocodiles (Muggers). I had seen Gharials fitted with transmitters and had wondered who was studying them. My hosts Ram Pratap Singh and Anu Dhillon from the Chambal Safari Lodge had arranged for me to meet Dr. Jeffrey Lang, a professor at the University of North Dakota, who has been studying them here on the Chambal for over a decade. Soon after the Uttar Pradesh Bird Fair of 2016 was over, I was on my way to see them with two birders, Nannette Roland, who works for Leica and Thomas Sacher, a top German birder. On the previous day, whilst having a meal at the lodge, Thomas had been drawing my attention to the call differences between Taiga and Red-breasted Flycatchers. No journey is straightforward with three birders in a van and we permitted ourselves the distraction of stopping to seize a few photo opportunities with birds such as Indian Rock Chat on our way to meet Jeff Lang.
On arrival, we were warmly welcomed by Jeff Lang and ushered into a simple, one storey building which was his research facility. Jeff held court and talked us through the work he had been engaged in. I learned that Jeff has a long association with India having worked for ten years in Chennai at the Madras Crocodile Bank with Romulus Whitaker and his early work focussed on how temperature determines the sex of crocodile hatchlings. He had also worked on turtles. Jeff had become involved in the project following a mass die-off of Gharials during 2007-2008 where over 110 dead individuals had been recorded in the 2-4 metre length class. These were all juveniles and subadults. Jeff had joined a team of international experts who had arrived in March 2008 to perform post mortems. Poisoning from heavy metals was suspected to be the reason for the die-off and initially it was suspected that Gharials had travelled to the Chambal-Yamuna confluence and had eaten fish that had been contaminated by the heavily polluted waters of the Yamuna. But one drawback with that theory was that it is known that the Yamuna is heavily polluted throughout the year and it did not explain why there was a sudden spike with Gharials found floating dead in the water. Later on when telemetry studies were performed, it was found that juveniles and subadults are sedentary, staying within a 10-15 km stretch of the river and not travelling to the confluence for feeding during the monsoon. This further supported the idea that the poisoning may have been due to toxic chemicals, possibly diclofenac, the substance that killed nearly all the Asiatic vultures, spilled accidentally or deliberately into the Chambal. Other factors may have exacerbated the fatal exposure, such as a cold snap which may have reduced the gharials' ability to flush the toxins out of their systems.
Indian conservationists Dhruva Jyoti Basu and Romulus Whittaker had joined with Jeff to undertake a long-term study of the spatial use and ecology of the Gharial. I gathered Basu had been a prime mover in the creation of the National Chambal Sanctuary. A number of Indian conservationists realised that an ecological study was needed for a long-term conservation plan to be developed and to succeed. The die-off of the Gharials had resulted in enormous negative press and the wildlife authorities were more receptive to an American scientist being granted the necessary permits to undertake a long-term study with local counterparts. Listening to Jeff I suspected he was being quite diplomatic in skipping over the details of the red tape. Having grown up in South Asia myself, I sensed it would have required a lot of tact and patience for his Indian colleagues to steer through the necessary permission to undertake a scientific project to investigate these mysterious deaths.
To study the ecology of Gharials, between June 2008 and August 2013 they had radio-tagged 20 Gharials. In July 2013 with further funding from the international zoo community, the project had continued with permission to tag another 25 Gharials and five Muggers. The Gharial Ecology Project studies the movements of these wild and free-ranging animals in the River Chambal system in a protected area known as the National Chambal Sanctuary or NCS. The sanctuary is unique in that its borders overlap three states: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Jeff explained why the National Chambal Sanctuary was so important. Of an estimated 2,500 wild Gharials, around 2,000 are found here. They are the only viable population living in an open free-flowing river. A much smaller "pocket" population of less than a hundred is found in the Ramganga River in Jim Corbett National Park and in Katerniaghat, another sanctuary on the Indo-Nepal border. However, due to these reservoirs being established in the mid 1970s, the dams resulted in networks of connected lakes rather than free-flowing rivers. These Gharial populations are marginal, and may not be self-sustaining, because the dams prevent free movements up and down the rivers. Chitwan National Park in Nepal also has a small population behind a barrage on the Indo-Nepal border, but the hatchlings there are often caught as by-catch by local fishing communities. Unlike in India, people are less tolerant of living with gharials in Nepal.
I asked Jeff whether in India, Gharials or their eggs are taken for consumption. He assured me that they are not and he pointed out that one of the reasons why wildlife is still found amidst large populations in India is because many people are not in favour of killing and consuming wild animals. However, he noted that within the area declared as the National Chambal Sanctuary, many families have their homes. The protection afforded within a sanctuary is high, almost on par with a national park. As a result in over 200 km of clean river, fishing is not allowed and creates a breeding reservoir. This benefit is harvested by around 500 fishing families downstream who live outside the sanctuary borders. This creates an asymmetry between who pays the price for the protection (with no access to fishing) and who benefits. Listening to Jeff, it was becoming clear that Gharial conservation is complex and fraught with issues that involve local people. I was curious to know how the scientific work involving the radio-tagging had progressed and what the results had shown. I will pick this up in the third part of the article.