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Odisha stars in crocodile conservation in India

Gharial hatchlings in Odisha signifies the success of wildlife conservation in the State

Odisha has the singular distinction of being the only State in India to boast of three species of crocodiles. It has freshwater gharials (Gavialis gangeticus)at Satakosiya in Mahanadi, mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) in Similipal and saltwater crocodiles in Bhitarkanika National Park.

And now it is time for the State to rejoice since after 1975, when gharials were introduced in rivers, Odisha sees the natural nesting of these reptiles. For the first time 28 hatchlings were spotted in May end in the Mahanadi, in the Baladamara area near Satkosia range.

Considering the significance of the event, officials have been monitoring them closely since, with round-the-clock surveillance with drones.

The news of hatchings was rejoiced by the Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik. In his tweet he said: “Commend @ForestDeptt for its sustained effort to breed Gharial crocodiles in the natural environment in the Satkosia gorge. The concerted conservation efforts to protect the natural habitat and create a habitable ecosystem led to the birth of such a large number of Gharial hatchlings.”

The State’s earlier initiative of introducing gharials did not pay dividends as all the original ones introduced over the years died. It had to wait for more than 40 years to see the numbers of these replies grow naturally by laying eggs.

Over a period of three years, the State introduced 13 more gharials in the Mahanadi. Of the eight which survived the Forest Department is still tracking two of them via their radio collars while the other six are no more on the radar.

Since 1975, Odisha is the only State to have the three species.

Eager to see that these hatchlings are successful, nearly 50 forest officials from six forest divisions are monitoring them. They are camping close to their habitat, patrolling the water bodies and spreading awareness across 300-odd villages located close to the river to help preserve the gharials.

Stationed closest to where the hatchlings and the mother gharial are located, are six officials. Talking to the Indian Express, the Divisional Forest Officer of Satkosia Range, Ravi Meena said: “We also have solar-powered CCTV cameras to keep a watch, and manually update on the movement of the reptiles.

The incubation period for the gharial eggs is 70 days while the hatchlings stay with their mothers for several weeks or even months.

A team consisting of four persons has been designated to patrol the main in two boats. The reason being with the onset of monsoon, the hatchlings can stray into breakaway nullahs or be swept away from their mother in rising waters. Meena told IE: “We have roped in local fishermen, who are aware of the geography. We avoid mechanised boats as their noise may scare or disturb the hatchlings.

Also read: World Crocodile Day: Ghariyals and Mugger feel safest in the ravines of Chambal

Providing additional details, the Satkosia Field Director, Pradeep Rajkarat adds that their main concern was flooding due to the rains. “Announcements are being made in villages and posters are being put up.”

Even though gharials are different from muggers as they do not harm humans, people are still afraid of them. “Many people mistake them for crocodiles and consider them harmful. We are trying to ensure the hatchlings are not harmed,” avers Rajkarat.

The Forest Department recently also announced Rs 1,000 for anyone rescuing a gharial, and compensation for those whose fishing nets are destroyed by the reptiles.

Harsha Bardhan, the Divisional Forest Officer, Mahanadi Wildlife Division said: “Cash rewards will encourage villagers to protect the hatchlings.”

According to the Anugul Assistant Conservator of Forests, Suvendu Behera they will keep a close watch on the gharials till they are in their natural habitat, which is deeper waters. "Gharials come to the shallow areas to lay eggs. Most of the gharials introduced in Odisha earlier were first kept in the Nandankanan zoo before being released into the river,” he informed.

Lately, the habitats of gharials are under threat due to encroachment and fishing. Those caught in fishing nets are either killed or have their snouts cut off. Gharials are also weaker than crocodiles and muggers, and don’t survive a fight between them.

Gharials were granted full protection in the 1970s and later listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.