The Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), also known as the gavial, and the fish-eating crocodile, is a crocodilian of the family Gavialidae, native to the Indian Subcontinent.
Gharials once thrived in all the major river systems of the Indian Subcontinent, spanning the rivers of its northern part from the Indus River in Pakistan across the Gangetic floodplain to the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Today, they are extinct in the Indus River, in the Brahmaputra of Bhutan and Bangladesh, and in the Irrawaddy River. Their distribution is now limited to only 2% of their former range
The gharial is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The species is considered to be one of the most critically threatened of all crocodilians, and was alarmingly close to extinction in the 1970s. They are listed on Appendix I of CITES, which prevents the movement of individuals between countries without good cause and extensive documentation.
Fortunately, since their near extinct, there has been some recovery in population numbers. A reasonable amount of hope now lies with the conservation and management programs in place. Full protection was granted in the 1970s in the hope of reducing poaching losses. There are now nine protected areas for this species in India alone. They are linked to both captive breeding and ranching operations where eggs collected from the wild are raised in captivity and then released back into the wild, much like some salmon and sea turtle management. The first were released in 1981. Today, more than 3,000 animals have been released through these programs. But still, the total population, wild and captive, is estimated at under 1,000 animals
The major threat at present is habitat loss due to human encroachment, and disruption of populations through fishing and hunting activities. A lack of suitable release sites has also started to become a problem for the management of the gharial. Eggs are collected for medicinal purposes, and males are still hunted for the aphrodisiac properties associated with the snout. They may also be snared in fishing nets and killed by fishermen. The decline in gharial populations have been linked to a decline in fish catches, as predatory fish, of no interest to the fishermen, form a major part of the gharial diet.
The earliest gharial may have been related to the modern types. Some died out at the same time as the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, others survived until the early Eocene. The modern forms appeared at much the same time, evolving in the estuaries and coastal waters of Africa, and crossing the Atlantic to reach South America as well. The discovery of the fossil remains of the Puerto Rican Gharial Aktiogavialis puertorisensis in a cave located in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, suggested that the Caribbean served as the link between the two continents.
Gharials have sacrificed the great mechanical strength of the robust skull and jaw that most crocodiles and alligators have, and consequently are unable to prey on larger creatures. The reduced weight and water resistance of their lighter skull and very narrow jaw enables gharials to catch rapidly moving fish, using a side-to-side snapping motion. At their peak, the Gavialoidea were numerous and diverse; they occupied much of Asia and America up until the Pliocene. One species, Rhamphosuchus crassidens of India, is believed to have grown to an enormous 15 metres or more.
The Gharial is undoubtedly the most bizarre looking crocodilian. Its very long, very slender snout is adapted to catch fish, as are the interlocking, needle-like teeth. Gharials are possibly the most aquatic of all crocodilians, and they have very short and weak legs; they actually only leave water to bask in the sun and to lay their eggs. This crocodilian is found in India and Nepal, and is among the largest members of the group, reaching 7 meters (23′) in length. Despite their huge size, they are usually harmless to humans; however, they can bite in self defense if provoked. Gharials get their name from the protuberance in the adult male’s snout, which is called a ghara. Gharials use the ghara to produce a sound which is supposed to attract potential mates.
It seems that males also use their ghara to produce bubbles with the same purpose. Some prehistoric crocodilians such as the enormous, dinosaur-eating Sarcosuchus also had a ghara. Who knows what amazing sounds they may have produced! Gharials are, themselves, the last survivors (along with false gharials) of a crocodilian group that was once widely distributed and diverse; remains of gharials and gharial-like crocodilians have been found even in South America! Unfortunately, the survival of the Gharial is, as usual, threatened by the advance of “civilization” and the loss of habitat. There are around 1500 gharials living in the wild nowadays, and the population seems to be declining due to water pollution with heavy metals.