The project to re-introduce the critically-endangered gharial in Punjab has finally secured anchorage in technical evaluation. At a workshop organised at Harike wildlife sanctuary between March 10-12, leading experts such as Dr SA Hussain and AK Bhardwaj (both from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun), Dr Asghar Nawab and Suresh Babu (both from WWF-India) and Tarun Nair (Foundation for Ecological Security and Researchers for Wildlife Conservation) conducted a field inspection of the sites where captive-bred gharials could be re-introduced. Online consultation was also undertaken during the workshop with Dr BC Choudhury, former regional chairman, West Asia, of the IUCN's Crocodile Specialist Group, and the legendary Rom Whitaker. Experts were ably assisted in their task by DFO (Wildlife) at Ferozepur, Neeraj Gupta, and representatives from Punjab Fisheries/Irrigation wings and State Willdife Advisory Board.
Experts ranked about nine sites on the basis of seven parameters of gharial habitat, including the key requirement of fresh, running water. The first four ranked on suitability were on the river Beas upstream of the sanctuary with Gagdewal (50 km upstream) emerging to be the best one. Chamba Kallan, which falls within the sanctuary, was ranked fifth. The WWF-India had in 2013 recommended sites upstream of the sanctuary as suitable ones though a section of the government was pressing for re-introduction within the sanctuary.
Experts ruled out releasing gharials this year as the suitable season has passed and said it was not necessary that re-introduction had to be within a sanctuary.
Summing up the evaluation, Dr Hussain told this writer: "We found that the Punjab Forest department was very keen on the project unlike other state governments. The government did well by undertaking the exercise of a technical evaluation. However, the government has to provide protection to the sites outside the sanctuary by having the upstream Beas river declared a community or conservation reserve. People living in the area are bound to be affected adversely by gharial release and they need to be educated and provided community livelihood projects that merge with the conservation project. Fishing has to be controlled, especially with plastic nets, as gharials could get caught in these. Ultimately, this conservation project is about providing people with a basis, ie 'save the gharial', that will motivate them to preserve their rivers for their own lasting good."
However, it remains to be seen whether top echelons of the Punjab Government muster the required political and bureaucratic will to implement the technical experts' recommendations in right earnest.
Last of the big lizziesA hunting trophy that hangs in the Villa Buena Vista at Kapurthala assumes significance while tracing the gharial's history before it went extinct in Punjab. This trophy is a magnificent 15 feet 10 inches from snout to tail. According to the plaque nailed alongside the trophy, the gharial was shot on January 13, 1913, by Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala on the Bien rivulet.
The late maharaja's grandson and scion of the erstwhile Kapurthala royalty, Brig Sukhjit Singh (retd), Mahavir Chakra, resides at the villa and owns this unique trophy. It is the only such preserved record from Punjab. Brig Singh told this writer, "The gharial was shot with a single bullet of the .375 magnum double-barrel rifle by Holland & Holland. The gharial died with the first shot and another bullet was fired by my late grandfather to ensure it was put down."
Going back in the gharial's history, Singh says his last sighting of this reptile was downstream of Harike in 1957. He holds irrigation/hydel works on rivers responsible for the gharial's extinction. "In 1989, I was part of the group that compiled a report on development of Mand Areas in Beas/Satluj. The report recommended that Govindwal on the Beas was suitable for reintroducing gharials," he said.
Another historical reference is to be found in the 1914 Gurdaspur District Gazetteer: "Punjab forms the former distributional range of the gharial and that the species was fairly abundant."
An anecdotal reference comes from Ambala-based bird-watcher, Sarabjit Mahal. In 1958, Mahal recollects seeing 50 gharials at Hussainiwallah Head Works, Ferozepur. During an Army exercise, one gharial was even shot and brought back to Ferozepur cantonment. However, Mahal says his father was posted back to Ferozepur in 1968 as commanding officer of the 87 Light Regiment. By then, the gharials had vanished.
Interestingly, one of the very last records of a gharial shot in India before hunting was banned in 1972, is a specimen measuring 17 feet 1 inch and weighing 1,000 pounds.
It was possibly shot on the Pilibhit-Kishanpur stretch of the Sharda river in Uttar Pradesh. According to the American magazine, 'Outdoor Life', Marc Pechenart and his Parisian wife, Martine, were shooting tiger and sambar along the river. They took a break at noon under some shade by the riverside when Pechenart spotted a gharial on the opposite bank.
He grabbed his .300 Holland & Holland rifle and shot the gharial through the head at a range of 200 m. Pechenart's trophy is the only gharial record listed in the books of the US-based Dallas Safari Club.
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