The world’s longest crocodile – adults can grow to more than 7m from nose to tail – the gharial is an awesome fishing machine. Its slender, broom-like snout, which bristles with a fine mesh of teeth, snaps shut on its prey like a spring-loaded trap. Unfortunately, its eggs are regarded as a delicacy, and males are hunted for their bulb-like snouts, believed to have medicinal powers.
In the mid-1970s, there were only 1300 gharials left. Chitwan’s project was set up in 1977 to incubate eggs under controlled conditions, thus upping the survival rate – previously only one percent in the wild – to as high as 75 percent. The majority of hatchlings are released into the wild after three years, when they reach 1.2m in length; more than five hundred have been released so far into the Narayani, Koshi, Karnali and Babai rivers. Having been given this head start, however, the hatchlings must then survive a growing list of dangers, which now include not only hunters but also untreated effluents from upstream industries and a scarcity of food caused by the lack of fish ladders on a dam downstream in India. Counts indicate that captive-raised gharials now outnumber wild ones on the Narayani, which suggests that without constant artificial augmentation of their numbers they would soon become extinct. A few turtles can also be seen at the breeding centre.