ZSL, in collaboration with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and our conservation partners, National Trust for Nature Conservation, Himalayan Nature and community groups under Chitwan National Park’s Buffer Zone User Committee, is leading an innovative approach to protect the critically endangered Gharials in Rapti and Narayani rivers in Chitwan National Park, through turning local community members into conservationists; and so harnessing local communities’ immense knowledge of Gharials and of the wider freshwater ecosystem.
Gharials are perhaps the most unique crocodilian. They are large, with males able to reach over 5m in length and 250kg in weight, with a long narrow snout. While delicate-looking this snout is the perfect tool to catch fish and crustaceans in the South Asian rivers Gharials call home. Male Gharial’s also develop a large distinctive lump on the end of their snouts when they reach sexual maturity. This lump is known as a Ghara, and is where Gharial’s get their name. Sadly they are also critically endangered, with only around 200 remaining in Nepal, and similar numbers in India; the Gharial is virtually extinct across the rest of its former rage including Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are also ranked as the 15th most evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered (EDGE) reptile.
Their fragile population in Chitwan National Park, in Nepal, is under threat from declining fish populations in their river habitats, cutting off their vital food supplies, and from mining activities polluting the river system. They are also threatened by direct killing, both through becoming trapped in fishing nets, and egg collection by humans. To turn their fortunes around requires that local communities become conservationists, using their local knowledge to help Gharials to recover.
But communities are facing their own challenges. Around 260,000 people in the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park are heavily dependent on natural resources for their day-to-day livelihoods. With many of these specifically dependent on fishing to provide their food. However, communities are fishing so much that the fish populations are dropping. This is having severe consequences for communities, with a day’s fishing yielding less and less fish over time.
ZSL and its partners have been working in Chitwan National Park to turn these two separate challenges into a new opportunity for people and Gharials. If local communities patrolled their river system both protecting gharials from poaching and egg collection, and preventing unsustainable fishing and other activities, then fish populations and the wider ecosystem would recover. This would provide a secure source of food for people and Gharials. To achieve this ZSL and partners have worked with local communities to establish 10 ‘Gharial Guard Groups’ across the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park. These innovative community-conservation teams will patrol their local area regularly, protecting Gharials from direct threats and preventing unsustainable fishing and other harmful activities. They will also engage with community members to improve public understanding of the importance of a healthy ecosystem for fishing livelihoods.
This community-based approach enables local communities’ immense ‘local ecological knowledge’ to be harnessed for conservation. This knowledge enables the Gharial Guard Groups to conduct targeted patrolling where it is needed most. For example they can strategically decide where to patrol, based on gharial habitat distribution, good fishing grounds and a wider range of other local knowledge. In addition, the Gharial Guard Groups provide a key channel to harness the wider local ecological knowledge of the community for conservation. Making use of this, ZSL and partners have now completed the first local ecological knowledge survey for Gharials in Chitwan National Park, which has provided key information on their status and threats. With these community-based conservation initiatives now established some of the building blocks of long-term Gharial recovery are in place. ZSL and partners will continue to support and expand these initiatives to ensure their potential is realised.
This conservation initiative receives vital funding from the DEFRA Darwin Initiative.
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