Gharial rescue: Coordination and teamwork the essence
Read on to know how a team led by a woman helps rescue a gharial found with fishing nets entangled in its snout.
Most of us would think twice before going too close to a gharial, let alone rescuing one. But for the kinds of Arunima Singh, fear is secondary to the imperative of helping the odd animal sighted with fishing nets around its snout. Of course, this is no one-man or one-woman drama one usually watches on some popular television channel, but a highly coordinated team effort where everyone sticks to their assigned task in trapping, securing and releasing the animal once the endangering net is removed.
Again, such rescues can be undertaken only by those who are familiar with the physiology and behavior of the animal, and always, in collaboration with the forest department staff.
In Kaliasot Dam, Bhopal, two gharials were sighted, one with a fishing net entangled around its snout. The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department was immediately at the scene, hoping to secure both the animals before any major damage was caused. The staff approached the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department which was more experienced in handling these animals, and the latter nominated a team led by Dr. Shailendra Singh from Turtle Survival Alliance/WCS-India, to assist with the operation.
Logistics and liaisons with various departments and authorities was led by Dr. Singh while the ground team consisted of Arunima Singh, Suresh Pal Singh and Himanshu Joshi (a consultant veterinarian from the Wildlife Conservation Trust), supported by a team of five fishermen.
“Gharial rescues can vary depending on the circumstances and the specifics of each case; if the animal is in water or land, if it is an injured animal, etc. Rescue involves securing the animal by covering the eyes and delicately but firmly holding the snout, to avoid it opening or getting entangled anywhere, while the rest of the team secure the body, either by hand or by the use of ropes or nets. The entire process must be synchronized and every member plays a vital role,” points out Arunima Singh.
Unlike what a layperson may think, a gharial while being sturdier than a dolphin, also needs to be handled with care during such rescues. Dolphins are much more sensitive and face a higher risk of collapse during rescues. But gharials too have their sensitive spots, like the snout, and need to be handled with care.
Gharials are very shy animals and don’t usually attack people. However, rescuing them is a double-edged sword because their defense mechanism involves using their snout to swipe and hit sideways. It is the snout where they are most vulnerable; once it breaks, it never heals and will always result in the gharial dying, says Arunima.
Another issue with rescuing gharials is the care required if it is caught in water. They have to be quickly removed as they breathe directly from air and if captured underwater, they can drown if not shifted to land soon. Once secured and taken out of water, the team cannot waste any time in transporting the animal as extended exposure to direct sunlight could result in them drying out and dying out of heat-shock.
Due to such unique challenges, the team had to try various methods to secure the gharials. It first used the ‘on-ground’ strategy, where nets were put out to cover the areas where the animal would usually come out to bask, allowing for tightening the nets and securing the animal. This did not work as the animal evaded the areas. It was then encouraged to move towards shallow water into a barricading net which was fixed to the ground using bamboo poles to create a kind of wall.
As the animal moved ahead, the team set up more layers of nets between the net wall and the animal, using almost four to seven nets. But the gharial managed to slip under five layers before getting caught between the sixth and seventh layer. The team then dragged it to the land where it was secured. Securing both gharials took 12 and 10 hours respectively, over the course of two days.
The main challenge of the rescue was the depth of the water. The team was using nets to barricade the animal but due to the uneven floor bed, the animal managed to escape underneath the nets. Plus, the nets were not high enough to reach the bottom. Gharials being smart animals were accustomed to the net strategy used by the department, and avoided them.
After being rescued, both animals were carefully bound, with the snout secured by non-lethal rubber bands and the eyes kept covered, with the rest of the body tied to a stretcher to ensure that it did not fall off. The animals were then transported to the Van Vihar National Park, where a thorough health assessment was conducted by Dr. Atul Gupta from the Van Vihar National Park and Dr. Himanshu Joshi; a consultant veterinarian from the Wildlife Conservation Trust, who was part of the rescue team too. After the check up, the animals were released into a natural pond within the national park, with all ropes and bands carefully removed, with the eye cover removed last, and the stretcher facing the lake for easy escape.
Gharials are extremely vulnerable to plastic and net accidents as their signature snouts end up entangled quite often. Other issues include high levels of toxic chemicals leached from plastics entering the food chain through contaminated fish, which then get passed onto gharials, and other fish-eating species like dolphins, otters and freshwater turtles.
On being a woman in a gharial rescue team, Arunima acknowledges that people are often surprised to see a woman getting into the dirt and pulling her weight with men on tasks perceived as dangerous. She has been a part of several crocodile rescues, which has helped her attain invaluable skills from several people in the field. She says, “While as a woman I may get highlighted more in such rescues, I would like to reiterate that it’s definitely a team effort and such success stories would really not be possible without the joint collaborative effort of the whole team.”
She believes coexistence is vital today and support from local communities is important for conservation. Long-term awareness drives and education programs for the local community on the importance of large aquatic fauna and the negative impact their loss can establish, as well as the potential ground level force that could be created to help save these animals.
Arunima stresses on the need to educate people not to leave nets unattended, throw plastic rubbish or obsolete fishing equipment into the river. Strong liaison between communities and forest departments would also be beneficial to ensure there is no panic on sighting animals, which could lead to an attack on the animals. This could help reduce the risk to both parties.
(As narrated by Rishika Dubla)