Sunday, March 7, 2010

Trip to Gharial capital

Gavialis gangeticus

The Gharial Gavialis gangeticus is one of the most endangered crocodilians in the world, with less than 200 breeding adults left in the wild. Historically, gharials were found in the river systems of Pakistan, Northern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. Now gharials are wiped out everywhere except a few small areas of India and Nepal.

Edward and Derek (I really can’t spell or pronounce their Chinese names!) from the university of Hong Kong reached Croc Bank, late night on 20 February, 2010. They were awarded a fully sponsored field trip by the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation. They were to spend a week at Croc Bank and a week at Croc Bank’s field base in Chambal River Sanctuary, experiencing Croc Bank’s field projects.

So who’s gonna escort them to Chambal..?

Yep, me! :)

We left for the airport at 05:30 in the morning. I didn’t notice we were flying spice jet till I actually took out the e-ticket to acquire boarding pass. It was one of the worst 2 hours and 32 minutes of my life! The legroom was ridiculous. I was using ‘concertina locomotion’ on my way out of Delhi airport!

It was a long drive to Gharaita where our field station is based. We reached at around 7 in the evening. Dark outside. No electricity. Cold. Tripped over a stone and almost got bitten by the sleeping dog!
Anyway, we were waiting for Dr. Jeff Lang and Shailendra Singh, both were on their way back from Etawah. Ravi, the education officer working with the freshwater turtles project did welcome us and offered nice hot tea. Jeff is heading a gharial radio telemetry project (Gharial Conservation Alliance) and Shailendra works with Turtle Survival Alliance. They both arrived in a short while. It was time for dinner by then. We had a nice introductory session with Jeff and Shailendra while having dinner.

“So, where do you guys want to sleep? You have your sleeping bags, right?” asked Jeff.

“Yes we have sleeping bags and we can sleep anywhere. No worries.” I said with a casual smile.

“Ok, we have a couple of cots up on the terrace. We can arrange for one more” said Jeff.

We went up there and whoa! It was COLD. Really cold. People who know me would know how much I hate cold. I realized I’ll look like a chicken if I now say that “Well, maybe I can sleep downstairs. It’s nice and cozy there.” So I was just nodding away with a weird smile. We set up a couple of cots for Edward and Derek. The third cot was covered with Jeff’s gear and I had my fingers crossed. :)

“You can sleep downstairs tonight and maybe we can arrange for a cot here tomorrow. Hope you don’t mind.” announced Jeff.

“Don’t worry Jeff. I’m fine anywhere, really” I said, again casually. But inside my head, I was “YES! Phew.. :)”

It was a rather good night. Nice and cozy in my sleeping bag, which has a 10 deg C comfort level by the way.

Next day started with a breakfast discussion with Jeff. He gave an overview of his project. They have been tracking 10 gharials for over a year now. A lot of interesting findings including habitat preferences, parenting behavior and some intelligent behavior! Jeff mentioned findings about the habitat preference and the main factors influencing it. Female gharials tend to stick around in areas with deep waters during the dry season and nest on the sand bars (raised islands in the river), making sure the babies, when they hatch out, have enough water and food to survive till the rains come. Males choose areas with females and food availability and end up making the same choice as females – deep waters. Same goes with juveniles and sub-adults. Smaller males maintain their distance from the big dominant males, quite naturally. You can very well map out the ‘gharial colonies’ on Chambal River in the dry season. During the monsoons everything changes; Chambal River gets flooded inevitably with high water levels everywhere, flushing out a lot of babies. This is when the gharials move out of the nesting areas. They have also documented a very cool movement pattern of gharials from wet season to dry season to wet season again. They seem to know the area they cruise pretty well. This movement pattern may hint towards their ‘home ranges’ but it is too early to conclude anything. A few more years will reveal a lot more information. Jeff also witnessed parental behavior of a caring father gharial. Jeff was trying to take some good shots of some of the hatchlings when this male appeared out of nowhere and stood guard, protecting the babies.

We also had a chat with the trackers, Pankaj and Anand. Jeff says he’s really fortunate to have these guys as trackers. The best advantage is that they are locals with their village not far from our base. They know the terrain, weather, animals, people and culture; some of the main qualities of a good tracker. They both come from a fishing community and so are well aware of the Chambal river system. I was acting as a translator in the conversation between the students and trackers. I also cleared out some of my queries. It was interesting to know that the local community is amazingly ignorant about the animals. They think Muggers Crocodylus palustris and Gharials are the same species and call them muggers! In spite of them looking and behaving a lot different. In case there’s an attack by a mugger on livestock or humans, gharials are equally blamed as the villagers think they are the same. Plus they see the gharials as major competitors for fish and think that if there are no gharials, there won’t be a protected area and they’ll have easy access to the river and its resources. This shows the extreme importance of educating locals.

Mugger Crocodylus palustris in Chambal

We went gharial watching for the next couple of days with Pankaj and Anand. This was another first for me; seeing gharials in the wild. I must say, these two guys have perfected the tracking business. We carried a big antenna and its smaller cousin, a foldable antenna. Within no time the receiver units were connected to the antennae and the search begun.

Tracking gharials

The first time I got a signal,…. beep beep, beep beep, I was jumpin! Woo hoo! That was awesome! What next? What next? I recalled Jeff saying “After the beeps, we try and observe the animals for 2-3 hours and note everything they do” and that’s exactly what we did. We went down the ravines (yeah exactly like you see in the movie ‘Bandit Queen’) and to the river bank.

Chambal is wild!

The terrain is not easy. It’s usually a few kilometers walk to the observation spots; hot, sweaty, tiring, but worth every step. Chambal is a wild place – ducks, pelicans, cormorants, storks and the best of all and my favorite - the birds of prey. I saw more birds of prey than anywhere else; Ospreys, Bonelli’s eagles, Booted eagles, Steppe eagles, Laggar, Kestrels and a couple that I could not identify.

“…19, 20, 21” Pankaj was counting.

I wondered what he was looking at with his binoculars. I tried to spot the ‘target’ myself.

“F……ish!” there were gharials! 24 at least. That was crazy. I wanted to WOW loudly but was well aware that’ll freak them out. Finally, I got to see gharials in the wild. Awesome!

We sat down looking at the gharials. The trackers took out their field notebooks and started recording location of the gharials, count, activity, sketch of the river and position of gharials, everything. GPS coordinates are also taken. The trackers follow the protocol religiously; pretty impressive.

Life is in slow motion for crocodilians. You can fill up 5 pages in one hour if you’re studying primate behavior, but with crocs you barely fill up half a page in a day.
The croc is basking.
Still basking.
It ate a fish…………………….. no it didn’t.
Went in water. Can’t see it anymore.
End of day.
Studying crocs, not easy.

So we were enjoying the gharials while our tracker friends were busy taking data. My binoculars occasionally would set a higher angle to spot the distant raptors. I was so happy, almost forgetting about the long walk back. But hey, that’s exciting too.

Leith's sand snake Psammophis leithii. Spotted on our way to the river bank.

Edward and Derek were having a great time taking tons of photos. We were also chatting with the trackers about their experiences with dacoits – the most famous ‘wild life’ of Chambal. It seems it isn’t as bad as it used to be a few years ago, but there are still a few dangerous folks around. The far-famed dacoit queen ‘Phulan Devi’ ruled her territory not far from where we were sitting. Just then Anand pointed a boat at distance. ‘Chambal Safari Lodge’ it read.

“Don’t worry. The gharials won’t get scared. They know the boat” said Pankaj.

I recalled the conversation we had with Jeff. He was talking about the intelligence level of gharials and capability to learn. If it is a survey boat (the boat that was used during their catching when the transmitters were fitted), they vanish underwater even before you see the boat coming. But they have figured out the tourist boats pose no threat and so they are surprisingly tolerant of them, even the babies! They differentiate based on how the boat  looks and sometimes based on how it sounds!

The tourist boat didn't seem to bother the otherwise extremely shy gharial

I told Jeff about the enrichment training that I do with the crocs at Croc Bank and how they can analyze, learn and modify their behavior to get the best results. This could be linked to their behavior in the wild as well. I showed him some of the croc enrichment training videos. “Whoa!” , “Bloody hell..” , “Wow..” , “Wow…“ , wide open eyes,  were some of the expressions. “Man, that is new!” I was happy to hear that from a croc researcher of his caliber. We discussed about this whole new concept of learning capabilities of crocs and how it can be explored more to understand them better. I remembered Ralf mentioning its importance in dealing human-croc conflicts. Jeff encouraged me to document the training sessions as much as I can and well, I’m gonna do it!

Back to the field. Derek pointed out “Is that a Jackal?” No Derek, that’s a WOLF! Wow!  Another first for me, right there, on the opposite bank. I wish I was there on that bank, or may be the wolf on this bank. Feeling blessed with an awesome luck I asked Pankaj “Are there dolphins here?”


Not long before we spotted a few behind the gharials! Ganges river dolphins! I was thrilled. This just could not get any better. 

It was getting dark now.

“We better leave. Not a safe place after dark.”  announced Pankaj.

I fortunately got my jacket along. It was getting colder as it was getting darker.

“What pugmark is that?” I asked

“Dog?!? ” said Pankaj

“You guys have huge dogs here”

Pankaj came to have a closer look and said “oh these are of Hyena’s”!!!

Striped hyena Hyaena hyaena pugmark

Chambal is awesome. 10/10! I loved it there. By the end of our trip, we saw around 100 gharials of all sizes and a bonus of all the other wildlife. I’d love to go back again, any day (except the winters!). In fact, I just received an email from Samir (Assistant director, Croc Bank) requesting a couple of visits to our base. Man! ain’t I happy!!!



lavkumar said...

Quite obviously you did not have the privilege of spending time with me in the Himalaya as otherwise you would have enjoyed the cold morning swim in that river!

chitra said...

yet another amazing read...well, you sure can make a reader get a feel of the places you have visited...wud love to visit this place myself now

Warren said...

Sounds like a perfect trip!

Katie said...

AMAZING!! I am so jealous, I really want to go, it sounds the best place ever...Did you get any pictures of the birds of prey, or the wolf??

Unknown said...

Hi Sohm.
You were having a wonderful time while I was sweating it out in Biratnagar in Nepal.Congrats and I am your proud neighbour.Hope to see you on the beach and get all the details.


Anonymous said...

Dear Soham
I think your trip was excellent. It was your first experience with croc. I was in chambal during my thesis on National Chambal Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh from 2005-2008.If you get oppurtunity, you can visit during annual census of wildlife, conducting by the M.P. state forest department. It will conduct every year in feb. It is very good trip and u can learned somw thing new.
good wishes
S.R. Taigor
Conservation Biology Unit
School of Studies in Zoology
Jiwaji Univesity, Gwalior-474011