Why a community released 160 crocodiles into its central river

These strange little creatures flourished for 38 million years. And then humans came along.

Three of the 160 gharial released in the Gandak River this year.
160 gharial were released into the Gandak River. Source: WTI

Setting 160 crocodiles loose in a popular river might seem like madness. But there’s actually a very good reason the tiny hatchlings were set free.

The animals belong to a rare species called gharial. And although you’ve likely never seen one before, you won't forget it once you've seen the creature's face, because of its extremely long snout and black scales.

The gharial’s strange appearance is believed to have developed over the last 38 million years to help it hunt for fish. And now sadly it’s critically endangered because of hunting and changes to its environment caused by humans.

According to a study published on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, numbers plummeted by 80 per cent in three generations. In 1946 it was estimated there were between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals, but by 2006 there were fewer than 250.

The gharial once flourished across all of the major river systems across the northern Indian subcontinent. Sadly, it is now locally extinct in Pakistan, Bhutan and Myanmar.

An adult gharial sticking its head out of a river.
Despite having evolved for 38 million years, the gharial is now critically endangered. Source: Getty

The announcement of the release of 160 hatchlings on Monday followed three months of nest monitoring by locals around the Gandak River basin in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in northern India.

The project was a collaboration between the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the country’s Forest Department. Patrols of the river began in March, and once nests were identified the eggs were collected and relocated further up the bank to avoid them tumbling into the river due to erosion.

“By the time of hatching, the riverbank had eroded by more than ten feet [three metres] from the natural nest location. Without the intervention of the team, we would have lost all the hatchlings to river erosion”, WTI’s Subrat Behera said.

Since its launch in 2013, the project has helped release over 600 gharials. The Gandak River is now home to the second-largest population of the species in the world. Last year 125 hatchlings were successfully raised.

"Out of the six nests detected this year, five have hatched successfully, while another is yet to hatch at the time of this report,” Behera said.

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