World Wetlands Day: Gharials released back into their historical range in West Rapti

Posted on 02 February 2024

2nd February 2024, Banke National Park: On the occasion of World Wetlands Day 2024, as part of an adaptation initiative, 10 Gharials were translocated from Gharial Breeding Center in Chitwan to West Rapti River in Banke National Park which historically was a part of the species’ natural range. The translocation was carried out under the leadership of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and with support from WWF Nepal to maintain and manage viable population of gharials in Nepal.
 
According to the vulnerability risk assessment (MoFE, 2021), Chitwan is more vulnerable to climate change impacts compared to Banke due to its high exposure and sensitivity to the effects of climate change. Recognizing that the West Rapti River historically fell within the natural range of the Gharials and experiences lower temperature alterations, the translocation of gharials will aid in reducing their vulnerability.

The Gharial crocodile (Gavialis gangeticus) is an indicator species endemic to the freshwater ecosystems of Indian subcontinent and is listed as a critically endangered species in the IUCN red list since 2007.  Gharials were once widely distributed in many rivers throughout Nepal but currently, they only occupy 2% of their historical range. The threats to gharial include habitat loss and degradation, intensive large-scale sand and gravel mining, and river pollution as a result of anthropogenic stressors alongside climate change.  Gharial’s sensitivity to temperature makes the species highly vulnerable to climate change. These threats have a direct impact on the basking and nesting and have posed a challenge in maintaining the gharial population in Nepal
As the top predators, Gharials are an indicator for the health of their ecosystem.

“As a habitat and diet specialist the presence of gharial is very important for the health of the ecosystem. This critically endangered species should be saved from infrastructure like dams and bridges.” said Mr. Laxman Pd. Poudel, TAL Manager.

Gharials also have potential as drivers of tourism which can boost local economies.
“We should now focus on tourism as livelihood and Gharial can play crucial role in that to start new business in tourism sector. This can also be instrumental in reducing human wildlife conflict.” Remarked Mr. Krishna K.C. "Namuna" , Minister of Urban Development, Lumbini Province.

 However, there are new emerging threats for the species. Gharials have a “preferred” body temperature around 30-33°C and the species being climate-sensitive, even a slight change in the preferred temperature range could alter the survival of the species which makes them highly vulnerable to climate change. According to the World Bank’s Country and Climate Development Report (2022), Nepal’s temperature is estimated to increase by around 0.90C between 2016 and 2045 with projections of drier winters and wetter monsoon. This changing climate is expected to accelerate the occurrence of floods and landslides thereby affecting the habitat distribution of critically endangered species such as gharials.

Talking about caring for the vulnerable Gharials, Mr. Gehendra Kumar Khadka, Banke National Park BZMC chairperson remarked, “I would like to assure you all that the community will take the full responsibility of these released gharials. However, communities dependent on river and wetlands should be provided alternative livelihoods to lessen the pressure on rivers.”

The health of the wetlands and rivers are crucial for the survival of not only the Gharials but also for all other flora and fauna as well as for humans.

"Importance of wetland is interconnected with human civilization, so we need to keep the wetlands healthy and intact for our own survival.” remarked Mr. Manoj Shah, Chief Warden, Banke National Park while concluding the event.
Gharials being released into the West Rapti River
Gharials being released into the West Rapti River
© WWF Nepal/ Kamal Raj Rai