Wildlife species, the most beautiful gift of God to nature has helped to flourish mankind from time immemorial. But ever increasing human population beside a number of other reasons has caused a serious threat to wildlife by way of habitat degradation, environmental pollution, exploitation etc. As a result, the ecological balance is getting disturbed; the richness of flora and fauna is suffering which on a long run can cause unforeseen and disastrous consequences. Studies have shown that extinction of a single species within an ecosystem can affect many other species including insects, higher animals, and even other plants.

All over the world Government as well as NGOs are putting enormous effort to save the endangered species to maintain the biodiversity. Indian Government has undertaken various programs like project tiger for saving Tiger, Gir National Park in Gujarat for nearly extinct Asiatic Lions, The Kaziranga Sanctuary in Assam to save the endangered Rhinoceros, Periyar in Kerala to preserve the wild Elephants while Dachigam National Park to save the Hangul or Kashmiri Stag.

kaziranga-national-forest

gharial

Innovative India Tourism Pvt. Ltd in association with iREBEL, Search, and with support from local government body of Hooghly & Burdwan district carried out an expedition in search of Gharials and Gangetic dolphins in the river Hooghly towards the possible formation of a new Gharial and Dolphin Conservation Reserve. The Initial survey work was conducted during 29th November, 2008 to February 21, 2009 in the study area of approximately 170 km stretch of the Ganges, Hooghly District from Tribeni to the Burdwan District just north of Belun.

According to the IUCN Red Data List, the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is a critically endangered species. Fewer than 200 breeding adults survive in the wild in highly fragmented habitat in India and Nepal. It has been extirpated from most of its historic range, including from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar. Establishing the presence of gharials in areas where they have not been officially documented for over 40 years was a great challenge.

This study was aimed at directly sight and photograph gharials, identify suitable gharial habitat and raise awareness among locals to initiate and sustain protection activities and also document the presence of other faunal species especially Gangetic dolphins, smooth-coated otters, and small cats & birds with potential to support responsible conservation tourism in the area and thus provide income to locals.

Methodological steps for this study were as follows (not in strict chronological order):

gagnetic-dolphins

Outcomes of the initial survey:

gharial-statistics

Gharials

Over the course of the three-month survey four regions of maximum gharial occurrence were identified as Sabujdwip and Balagarh of Hooghly district; Nabadwip; Patuli-Agradwip; and Ketugram II block of Burdwan District. Amongst them the maximum number of reported sightings from one-foot long babies to 17-foot males came from Balagarh and surroundings. More than ten islands with potential as optimal nesting and basking grounds for gharials were also identified. Fishing specially with gill nets and set nets, destruction of sandbanks for the use in Brick factories, disturbance of human being during basking in the sun, industrial pollution and perception that gharials are man-eaters like other crocodiles are the possible threats to them.

Gangetic Dolphins

During the study 36 dolphins in total were counted over the 170 km stretch of river. At six locations in the study area congregations of between four and eleven dolphins were observed. Best sightings from the standpoint of proximity to and number of individuals were at Ketugram II block in Burdwan and Khayaramarir char near Kharmargachi in the Hooghly District.

gagnetic-dolphins-statistics

cats-statistics

Small Cats

Two small cat species – Jungle Cat the Fishing Cat – inhabit the study area. The field workers did not sight any but frequently observed footprints.

Smooth-Coated Otter

Several reports of occurrence of smooth coated otter in the study area were received. The best otter habitat we found was at Khayaramarir char in Hooghly District.

Smooth-Coated-Otter

migratory-bird-statistics

Birds

Twelve areas in the study zone with thousands of migratory birds of various species were observed including ruddy shelduck, lesser whistling duck, northern pintail, gadwall, common pochard, red-crested pochard, and, possibly for the first time in the study area, bar-headed goose and greylag goose etc.

This study is ongoing and final report is yet to come. But it appears that protection of these areas will benefit both the gharials and bird species.

  • Identify initial study area based on anecdotal reports
  • Research and evaluate pertinent data such as satellite photos/maps
  • Consult with area locals in the field (anecdotal evidence)
  • Conduct brief reconnaissance forays to locales of reported gharial sightings
  • Establish final study area
  • Observe and document entire study area by boat (Ganges River mainstem) and on foot (walking banks)
  • Document mid-river islands (potential critical habitat)
  • Take photographs
  • Raise awareness among locals of significance of gharial presence and enlist them in protection activities
  • Disseminate study findings