Sanjeev Satgainya

Chitwan

It is always wonderful watching crocodiles and ghariyals on the television. People hardly know that the same creatures are found in abundance in our own rivers. Ghariyal (Gavialis gangeticus) is a large fresh water crocodile. Ghariyal and crocodile, of much importance to biodiversity, have to be saved for a sustainable ecosystem.

Recognising the important role these creatures play in the ecosystem, in 1978, a Ghariyal Breeding Centre was established at Royal National Chitwan National Park (RCNP). The centre since then has been serving to save the creature, breeding them to increase the drastically reduced number, saving them from extinction.

By 1977, ghariyals in RCNP were estimated to be around 57 and the world population was 200 in the wild. The endangered species, number of which was gradually going down, are brought back all around the world and the Ghariyal Breeding Centre at Kasara too has attained tremendous success.

Now the centre not only breeds ghariyals but has also established a different section for tortoise where there are seven species of tortoises bred in captivity and later released in the wild.

The nursing of these Ghariyals, though dangerous, is equally difficult and they are always preyed upon by several other species too. It seems incredible that such wild creatures are so delicate and shy in their infancy.Wild creatures like monitor lizards and sometimes ghariyals’ own parents prey on them even the fish and birds are the main predators of young ghariyals. In normal and natural conditions, hardly more than one per cent of the eggs survive to adulthood. Moreover, water pollution, damming of rivers (causing flooding of their nest sites), human intervention can also be attributed to the decline of the number of this specie.

Poaching for skin and other body parts has been a major threat for which surveillance has become necessary to preserve this unique but important creature. The superstitions about the eggs and snout of the male ghariyal also cause threat from humans.

“The basic cause for establishing the breeding centre is high mortality rate of these creatures in the wild,” says Shivraj Bhatt, chief warden, RCNP. The collection of eggs is done during March/ April. “Though specific trainings have not been conducted for the collection, the local fishermen are deployed for this purpose. The team from our breeding centre too accompanies them. Till date, there has been a good collection of eggs every year,” adds Bhatt.

The eggs are artificially hatched and young ghariyals are kept in captivity at the centre for three years. The ghariyals at the breeding centre are fed with small fish.

“The growth rate of ghariyals is quite slow and unless they are three years of age, they are still vulnerable to their predators.” After that they are released into their natural habitat following a two-week life in pre-release pen by the river for acclimatisation.

According to the information provided by the centre, till date 1,100 eggs have been collected and hatched, with 425 ghariyals released into the Narayani, Kali Gandaki, Babai and Koshi rivers.

Around three kilometres away from Sauraha lies another breeding centre. The visit to this Elephant Breeding Centre is enthralling. The centre is across the Budhi Rapti river and to reach the centre one has to take a boat ride lasting barely five minutes.

More than 30 elephants of all ages provide a wonderful first sight. The breeding centre was established to manage, train, medicate and preserve the elephants under RCNP. Narayan Chaudhary, one of the caretakers of the elephants and an employee at the centre, says, “We start training these elephants from the age of four or five years. Later it is too difficult as they get very strong and are almost uncontrollable.”

Usually each elephant has one caretaker who looks after it all the time. Chaudhary adds, “Some elephants from early childhood are quite aggressive and naughty and we have to treat them very badly also. Though it feels bad to thrash them at a tender age, there is no other option. We have to train these elephant at any cost.”

The elephants are fed sugarcane, their favourite, hay, rice, etc. Though the big elephants might scare some, the tiny ones are lovely and sometimes follow the visitors around also.