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gharials

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Welcome, Young Gharials!

Keeper Rachael Walton releases a young gharial into its new home at the Zoo.

May 16 was a huge day for the Reptile Department at the San Diego Zoo. This was the day we headed to the Los Angeles airport to pick up 10 young Indian gharials from India. We partnered with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (MCBT) for this extremely important animal transfer. The MCBT is one of the largest reptile zoos in the world and one of the oldest nongovernment environmental organizations in Asia. The process for importing these critically endangered crocodilians began five years ago with conversations between our Zoo and various Indian organizations and U.S. government agencies. Five years of calls and visits to Indian facilities, letters written and re-written, permit application after permit application, we finally had our import permit in 2011 and began to make concrete plans for the importation.

The staff at MCBT worked tirelessly applying for the various Indian permits and completing the official paperwork, building crates, and preparing the shipment details. Our staff worked hard preparing the exhibit for the arrival and moving other animals in order to accommodate our new residents. Staff and volunteers lent a hand by helping coordinate our arrival on Zoo grounds and interpreting for guests what we were up to and why. Our Veterinary Services staff did thorough exams—all in all, it was a long day, and we appreciated everyone’s efforts to help make it a success.

Keepers Peter Gilson, left, and Brandon Scott carry precious cargo!

The import of these animals is significant because their population has been reduced to a very small number of widely spaced subpopulations of fewer than 235 individuals. This species has experienced a decline of 96 to 98 percent over a 3-generation period since 1946. The drastic decline in the gharial population can be attributed to a variety of causes including over-hunting for skins and trophies, egg collection for consumption, use in native medicines, and killing by fishermen. Hunting is no longer considered to be a significant threat; however, the wild population of gharials has undergone a drastic decline of about 58 percent between 1997 and 2006.

Conservation programs have been undertaken in India and Nepal to establish protected areas and restock them with animals born in captivity, but nowhere has restocking reestablished viable populations. San Diego Zoo Global manages the Gharial Conservation Fund, through which we are able to support much-needed gharial research and conservation efforts in the field. We plan to continue to partner with the MCBT and other zoos for the conservation of this amazing species.

This import has been very significant to the Species Survival Plan for gharials, as this new group of animals means the addition of new genetics and a younger demographic for zoo collections. Our Zoo is one of only seven North American zoos to house gharials. Head down to Tiger Trail at the Zoo to see these amazing young crocodilians for yourself!

Kim Lovich is an associate curator at the San Diego Zoo.

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Field Adventures in India

Gharial

Gharial

I am preparing myself for another adventure in India: two months of fieldwork along one of India’s greatest biodiverse rivers, the Chambal. Each of my trips to India over the past four years has been incredibly different from one another, so I have no way to guess what this trip will have in store for me.

During my first trips, I felt like a whirling dervish among the bustling trains and masses of humanity as I made my way from one metropolis to another. My later trips have found me setting up residence in a small rural village on the banks of the Chambal River, with blast furnace hot days and nights when I felt as if I was sleeping in a walk-in beer cooler.

take a look at thits!

This is my host family's house and where we slept when it wasn't raining. When it rained we moved into the shed with the water buffalo.

Village life is good, although the children are still scared that I am secretly a medical doctor whose role it is to give vaccination injections when they least expect it. I have grown used to sleeping on a traditional short wooden cot with my feet propped on a plastic lawn chair next to my host family’s water buffalo. And, in turn, I think the buffalo has taken a liking to me (I sneak Loraine, as I affectionately call her, treats when no one is looking). However, I struggle with bathing at the communal well; I just am too bashful to be seen in my skivvies in front of the entire village! So, I wait until the sun has set and no leering eyes are present to have my “bucket shower.” This also saves me from becoming a lobster, as my fair Irish skin burns incredibly easily.

yummy

This is a typical large mid-day meal served on metal plates. The plates have edges, as food is eaten with your hands and you need the edges so your food doesn't end up in your lap while you're trying to scoop it up!

My U.S. friends often ask me how I like food while I am away for months on end. I explain to them that Indian food in India is often not like the foods you see in restaurants stateside. There is the typical nan or roti (flat bread) accompanied by lentils and rice, but I do not eat tikka malsala (my personal favorite) for every meal. For breakfast, I really like the fresh yogurt made from buffalo milk, and spicy samosas make a great between-meal treat.

I will be leaving in a few short weeks with my bags stuffed with field gear and plenty of sun block, resting assured that this trip will truly be a new adventure.

Brian Horne, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow for San Diego Zoo Conservation Research. He is working to help endangered red-crowned roof turtles and gharials in India.

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