Sunday, August 10, 2014

MUGGER IN GHARIAL NICHE (Preparing for Man-Mugger interface in Satkosia Gorge of River Mahanadi)

I was first shocked to see a photograph where tourist tents were pitched on Ramgaon sands in Satkosia Gorge during the year 2008-2009, and a large mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) was basking at the edge of water. I had pleaded for relocating the tents to the end of the Gorge at Badmul which is more picturesque. As of 2014 no accident has occurred due to crocodiles, and tent-camping is already abandoned at Ramagaon. Management of a crocodile sanctuary may not be compatible to enthusiastic tourism.

Now I am for a discussion about something more serious for the future. First, I must set the stage.

Because of the restocking programme in Mahanadi we are able to see the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) even now. It has, however, become clear that mugger crocodile is a lot ahead on its way for completely snatching away the address and a part of the profession of gharial in River Mahanadi.

GRACU with glorious start
Mahanadi bank at Tikarpada has the first Gharial Research and Conservation Unit of the country since 1975. The FAO Consultant for FAO/UNDP/Govt of India Crocodile Project was first stationed at Tikarpada. Croc-planning for the country was generating from here till 1979. The Orissa project has provided a bulk of our knowledge on gharial biology and management. The gharial-restocking programme is going on here since 1977.

My crocodile career had taken a start at Satkosia Gorge from 05 June 1975. In January 1981 I moved to Government of India. Apart from imparting training to in-service Forest Officers I got the opportunity to initiate a Field Camp in National Chambal Gharial Sanctuary from May 1983. It was for research on gharial and all its ecological associates. At that time gharial in India were enjoying the most ideal habitat in Chambal. Back in Orissa the situation for gharial was not encouraging.

Non-survival of Gharial in Mahanadi
Four years after my return to Orissa, in September 1991 Mr C. S. Dani, the Chief Wildlife Warden issued an official instruction that in addition to my primary work in Similipal I should make a study and report on various aspects of ‘non-survival of gharial in Mahanadi’. That was an occasion to scrutinize the issues that affected the first gharial project of the country.

By 1991 more than 700 gharials were already released in Mahanadi but hardly 25 were seen. I discussed the issue of non-survival of gharial from several possible angles namely, (a) evolutionary forces acting against gharials, (b) deterioration of the habitat of gharial in Mahanadi, (c) status of gharial habitat in Mahanadi when compared with the habitat in Chambal, (d) our own limited success in eliminating those decimating factors which were identified in 1975 to be acting against gharial in Mahanadi, (e) modifications in management that were not conducive to effective gharial conservation.

Mugger in Gharial River
One of the reasons for non-survival is “Mugger in Gharial's ecological niche”.  It was not the first time that muggers were identified as a factor that may cause problem for gharial. The problem was apprehended since 1979 at Katerniyaghat where it was decided through a symposium and we communicated the decision that mugger crocodiles should not be released in gharial habitats because muggers always had the potentiality to take over the habitat from gharial.

Gharial-rivers didn’t have many mugger crocodiles
Structurally Gharial is adapted more towards living in water or at its edge. It cannot go on long walks away from water as can muggers. By the beginning of 1970s Gharial had got confined to selected perennial rivers of the Gangetic, Brahmaputra and Mahanadi systems. These rivers were better known for gharial than for the mugger. Mugger was secretive, if it occurred. I had taken note of one exception in River Chambal in 1983-85 where the zone expressively occupied by mugger was scarce of gharial and dolphin.

From 1960 Mr L. A. George was in charge of river movement of bamboos on river Mahanadi for the Titaghur Paper Mills. He saw “plenty of gharial together with a few muggers in Mahanadi during 1960s”. I reached Tikarpada early enough in 1975 to meet and interact with Mr George for a couple of years. Reportedly, around 1969 persons from south had killed many gharials and crocodiles with baited hooks.

Retired officers of the state Forest Department have often talked about the abundance of gharial as well as mugger in river Mahanadi during 1930s and 1940s. When we undertook survey of Mahanadi in 1975-1976 we found the river with only eleven gharials and three mugger crocodiles. There were no crocodile nests until we got one with a guarding mother gharial in Satkosia Gorge in 1976.

The survey showed that no crocodilians were left in river Ib, the Hirakud reservoir, in the Mahanadi up to Boudh, and in the tributaries Baghmati and Badanadi.  From Boudh to Satkosia Gorge there were seven gharials and 2 muggers. In Satkosia Gorge there were four gharials and one mugger. Then from Satkosia Gorge to Cuttack there were none. From Cuttack to tidal limits there were no crocodilians except the possibility of presence in tributary Chitrotpala. So, Mahanadi, like other Gharial rivers in the country was indeed very low in number with muggers, and signs of breeding in the wild were not clear.

Compulsion of Manager may become mistake in Conservation!
When I wrote the report in 1991 about non-survival of gharial in Mahanadi 213 muggers were already released in the river. The releases were often defended as a managerial compulsion. The compulsion had arisen because of the project’s own fast-success in captive breeding of mugger at Tikarpada.

Mugger crocodile can live in a range of freshwater habitats and are not very specific in their food habit. As they grow from hatchling to adult food composition may change from insects and fish to live or dead mammals. They can walk on land for several kilometers if the water dries up. They can flourish better than the gharial.

Croc Equation in Mahanadi
From annual survey reports it is gathered that presently a boat trip along the Satkosia Gorge may not show any gharial but will show several muggers of various sizes from hatchlings to adults.
The Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary is now under the Tiger Reserve network. Commitment towards habitat conservation is becoming stronger. The days for mugger in the river are better than the situation in 1960s! So, the species is likely to floursh in Satkosia Gorge and the River Mahanadi, but in the process unintentionally we are at the end of the road towards completely losing the gharial.

Mugger crocodiles are known for peaceful coexistence with people and cattle that use the same water body. But, with increase in numbers of mugger the interface with man is expected to increase. Village impoundments may attract muggers during high flood in Mahanadi.

Thus, there is fear that mugger may create a situation for which in the coming decades the state wildlife administration will have to remain ready. People may wean away their past tolerance to a couple of muggers in the pond they put to their own use.

Precautions needed to reduce possible man-mugger interface
I suggest some precautions for future. These are not complete or only for Odisha (Orissa).

(1.) Do not make special effort to breed mugger unless the habitat for release can accept more. If they are breeding in captivity the process may continue without human interference.

(2.) Do not collect mugger crocodile eggs for captive propagation.

(3.) Do not release any more mugger in River Mahanadi.

(4.) Keep alive the crocodile rearing centres at Tikarpada, Ramatirtha and Dangamal to keep live the art and science of crocodile rearing including capture. Retain the skilled people who can capture crocodiles without fear.

(5.) Do not remove or kill predators of crocodile eggs. Let them defend and balance, naturally!

(6.) Tourists going for boating in Mahanadi need to be educated.
  • People must not hang their feet or hand out of the boat into water when the boat is moving.
  • They must not throw unused meat or fish at camping places.
  • They must not feed muggers. They may create nuisance muggers for future.
  • Nuisance muggers will shed fear for people. They may become bold enough to approach boats and camping places for food. Nuisance animals are created by people who feed them without realising the consequences. This is our experience in temple campuses.
  • Fishermen should be careful when fixing or removing baited hooks in water, and when cleaning their utensils away from normal bathing ghats.

Future of captive mugger crocodiles at Tikarpada
Now there are only two mugger crocodiles and nine gharials maintained in captivity at Tikarpada. These are for educational purposes of the public and students who visit the place.

People who have mastered the art of rearing and capturing crocodiles are valuable to us. Crocodile rearing including their capture and handling is a skill that has been learnt and perfected with experience continuously and gradually over the years. Losing such people and the skill will take us back to 1975.

Gharial for Tikarpada and Satkosia
The restocking programme involving gharial has to be kept continued with young ones brought from captive breeding programme at Nandankanan. That way sighting of Gharial in Mahanadi can be continued and people will not forget gharial for which the project started. The scope for education, research, photography and ecotourism keeping gharial and mugger in focus can be kept continued.

The exercise will also help to keep sharp the skill and technology of rearing gharial both at Nandankanan and Tikarpada. It will help to reduce pressure on captive stock at Nandankanan.

Tags:  compulsion of wildlife manager, conservation mistake, enthusiastic tourism, Gharial non survival in river Mahanadi, man crocodile interface precautionary management, mugger crocodile management, Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary