KATHMANDU - In 2005, nearly 700 gharials, members of the crocodile family, were released in the Narayani and other major rivers of Nepal to boost the population of an endangered species whose number worldwide is estimated to be now less than 2,000.
However, three years later, instead of showing a growth in population, the Gavialis gangeticus, the crocodile with the characteristic long narrow snout, now numbers around 80, creating alarm among conservationists in the Himalayan republic.
In a bid to understand what is causing the disappearance of one of the world’s most endangered crocodile species, on Monday Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in collaboration with WWF’s Nepal chapter moved to fit 14 gharials with radio tags and release them in the Rapti river in southern Chitwan district.
The radio tags, based on radio frequency identification technology, are attached externally to the skin of the big lizards and will help track their movement so that their survival rate and status of preferred habitat in Nepal can be assessed.
In 1978, Nepal started a captive breeding programme for gharials with the support of Germany’s Frankfurt Zoological Society. The programme aimed at rehabilitating the wild population through egg collection, captive rearing and release of the young reptiles into river systems within protected areas.
At present there are two breeding centres in operation in Nepal, in the Chitwan and Bardia National Parks. The gharials released Monday were from the breeding centre in Kasara, Chitwan.
In the 1940s, there were about 5,000 to 10,000 gharials in the world. But 2006 figures show less than 2,000 in India and fewer than 35 adults in Nepal.
Although hunting is no longer a threat to the species, the construction of dams, barrages, irrigation canals, sand-mining and riverside agriculture have resulted in irreversible loss of its habitat.
(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at email@example.com)