Critically Endangered gharial crocodile found breeding in South West Nepal for first time in 37 years

ZSL EDGE conservationists discover first successful nesting and breeding site of gharial crocodiles in Bardia National Park of Nepal.

New hope for the Critically Endangered gharial crocodile has been declared, after conservationists from ZSL and Biodiversity Conservancy Nepal discovered more than 100 hatchlings in Bardia National Park in South West Nepal this year.

Photo - Close up photo of a small, brown baby gharial on sand.
Gharial hatchling in the Babai river at Dhanuse in the Bardia National Park

The findings of our EDGE of Existence programme have been published by the IUCN SSC Crocodile Specialist Group in the last week but experts are keen to stress that while the news is exciting, the species still requires urgent conservation action and much needed funds.

Recorded breeding in the National Park for the first time since 1982, the species has suffered a 98% decline since the 1940s, due to a variety of human-induced threats. Only one other population is known to be breeding in the entirety of Nepal, in Chitwan National Park - where we are also working with local communities to help improve numbers in the wild. 

The discovery means conservationists can now prioritise this population for conservation action, including conducting feasibility studies into whether the species can be translocated from the south in Chitwan and researching survival rates of hatchlings. However, ambitious work like this requires a serious injection of funds.

Photo - Adult gharial in a river, with several hatchlings clinging to it's back
Gharial hatchlings hitching a ride

Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus), ranked #17 on the EDGE Reptiles list, are primitive and bizarre in appearance – with extremely long slender snouts and disproportionately sized heads to bodies, they are unmistakable but also severely threatened. With fewer than 100 adults remaining in Nepal, several fragmented populations in India and virtually extinct across the rest of their former range – they are among the world's most endangered reptiles.

Rikki Gumbs, ZSL EDGE of Existence PhD Researcher, said: “Understanding whether gharials were breeding in Bardia National Park was considered to be a top priority for the species, as upcoming plans to divert nearby river systems – which would likely have an impact on the habitat and quality of the river for gharial, are currently underway.

“Given the species is limited to around five populations across its entire range, this is such a positive discovery, and a critical step for the long-term recovery of the species in Nepal.”

The dramatic declines seen in gharials were initially caused by river modification with dams and barrages fragmenting habitat, and as accidental bycatch when they drowned in fishing nets. Over-hunting for skins and egg collection were also major issues. Although hunting and egg collection are now prohibited, additional threats today include the overwhelming and irreversible loss of riverine habitat due to the construction of dams, irrigation canals, sand-mining, pollution and agriculture.

In the last 50 years, Nepal has lost almost twice as many freshwater species than terrestrial species – but this is not an issue only for Nepal, this is a phenomenon seen around the world, occurring at an astonishing rate.

Photo - Young man iin a white ZSL/EDGE t-shirt, holding a gharial hatchling with river in background
Rikki Gumbs with a gharial hatchling

For gharials, these changes have meant hatchlings aren't making it to adulthood and being recruited into the population. Gharial travel large distances in search of suitable locations for feeding, breeding and nesting. This makes them susceptible to being isolated from suitable habitat since they can be trapped on the wrong side of dams and barrages when monsoon floodwaters go down. They're also highly susceptible to human disturbance, which is increasing due to lowland areas becoming urbanised.

Communities around National Parks in Nepal also face their own challenges, however, with hundreds of thousands of people heavily dependent on natural resources for their day-to-day lives, relying on fishing for their livelihoods and food. However, fish stocks are slowly being depleted, impacting both gharial and local people.

We have been working within local communities to set up 'Gharial Guard Groups' outside of Chitwan National Park in order for them to patrol and protect gharials from direct threats such as unsustainable fishing. 

Photo - Young man in a blue shirt, sat on a sandy riverbank next to a gharial nest
Ashish Bashyal near one of the gharial nests.

Ashish Bashyal, Project lead and National Geographic Photo Ark EDGE Fellow based in Nepal said: “After trekking through the jungle for hours to sit on a ridge and finally catch a glimpse of the hatchlings below us – it was an incredible moment to capture. At around 30cm in size, they look exactly like miniature versions of adult gharials – so incredibly cute. 

“People generally have a great affinity for gharials, they don't attack humans as they generally feed on fish – and their snout is much too fragile. We want to try and harness that love for the animal into local community conservation action in order to help monitor how the hatchlings fair.

“It's not just local people who can support the project, but international support from the British public through donations will help us to solidify long-term protection of the species for future generations.”

At ZSL, we work tirelessly to help bring wildlife back from the brink, supporting local communities and protecting some of the most threatened species.

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