There’s a mysterious disease stalking the gharial (the Indian crocodile). Even as I write this, dead bodies of the gharial are being dragged out from the river Chambal. Females, males and sub-adults — the death toll continues to rise day after day.
It’s a mass slaughter and it’s not due to poaching — it’s an epidemic, which has already wiped out a massive chunk of the gharial population. Almost a hundred gharials have died at the National Chambal wildlife sanctuary alone, the only one in the country that extends into three states, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The MP government has been swift to react. But Rajasthan still refuses to acknowledge the problem (even though the Environment Minister at the Centre is from Rajasthan). The UP government, too, is foxed.
But other than sending the dead bodies for a routine post-mortem, everyone is clueless.
Renowned wildlife filmmakers Naresh and Rajesh Bedi, who have been filming gharials for the last decade, could not believe what they saw this December: a male gharial heaved and trembled as it raised its snout in the air and died a slow death. Gharials are not easy creatures to film and will jump into the water even if you are 30 feet away. This time around, the gharials just lay there as the filmmakers went right up to them. The female gharial was too sick to even jump into the water for cover. A few days later, the bodies continue to be dragged from the river.
It’s a virtual mortuary on the banks of the Chambal: gharials succumbing to a disease that scientists are unable to identify, while a forest department looks on helplessly. Fewer than 200 breeding pairs of gharials are found in the wild today and with the latest deaths, the numbers have shrunk rapidly.
Why should we care if a few hundred gharials have died? Well, because the gharial was once a symbol of all that was right with Indian conservation. Having shrunk to very low populations in the 1980s, gharial numbers had revived solely because of an active captive breeding programme. Sand mining used to be one of the biggest problems affecting the habitat. Last year, this too was stopped following orders from the Supreme Court. Things were beginning to look up.
Until these sudden unexplained mass deaths.
What flummoxes wildlife managers is that none of the other species of the Chambal river ecosystem like the otter, the gharial’s cousin, the Indian mugger (crocodile), and over a 100 species of migratory birds such as the pelican, which also feeds on the same waters as the gharial, have been affected. The post-mortem reports show a high content of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and chrome in the stomachs of the dead gharials. But where did the lead come from? If you have ever visited the Chambal sanctuary, you may be forgiven for thinking that it’s on the edge of the world. Because of the traditional fear of dacoits, hardly any industries have set up base here and human habitation is sparse. The river is sparkling clean with no industrial contamination.
So how did the lead get into the water? Could it be from the Yamuna, which meets the Chambal further downstream at Etawah in Uttar Pradesh? Could it have been some fish that the gharials had eaten? But then, why has no other wildlife in the Chambal been affected? These are questions which only wildlife disease specialists can answer. Provided, of course, that the wildlife specialists are called in. The nature of the disease is such that it will require international experts who have experience in containing wildlife diseases and epidemics.
And why is the gharial worth saving? There are many reasons apart from the obvious one: the need to save a species. But most important is this: because it is possible to save the gharial. It’s a localised problem — unlike the more complex problems of poaching or habitat loss that have plagued other Indian wildlife species like the tiger.
Wildlife maybe a subject handled by state forest departments but the reality is that it takes central interest for states to recognise they have a crisis on their hands. It took the Prime Minister’s intervention to recognise that the tiger was being poached to extinction. At this point, immediate steps need to be taken. Ask the World Conservation Union to step in. Monitor the area, bring in scientists from within and outside the country. Cordon off the area to ensure the disease does not spread. Set up a task-force consisting of the forest department of all three states, chaired by the Ministry of Environment and Forests at the Centre, which can monitor the disease till it has been identified.
In an Indian conservation scene plagued by habitat destruction and poaching, here is one species that can be saved. And if we don’t act now, the gharial will be the first species in independent India to have gone extinct.
Only because we didn’t care enough.
The author is a conservation biologist
and Environment Editor, CNN-IBN