Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Once found in freshwater river systems from Pakistan to Myanmar, the critically endangered gharial's range is now limited to India and Nepal.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is a gharial?

Gharials, sometimes called gavials, are a type of Asian crocodilian distinguished by their long, thin snouts. Crocodilians are a group of reptiles that includes crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and more.

Habitat

Gharials live in clear freshwater river systems, congregating at river bends where the water is deeper. They’re not well-suited for land so they generally only leave the water to bask in the sun or to nest.

Once found from Pakistan to Myanmar, the reptile's range has shrunk to two countries: India, along the Chambal, Girwa, and Son Rivers; and Nepal, along the Narayani River.

Appearance and behavior

A typical gharial will reach 12 to 15 feet in length and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Gharials regulate their body temperature by basking in the sun to warm up or resting in shade or water to cool down.

Male gharials sport a large growth on their snout called a ghara, the Hindi word for "mud pot." Males use their gharas to vocalize and blow bubbles during mating displays. The animals congregate to mate and make nests during the dry season, when females lay eggs in sandbanks along slow-moving sections of water. Eggs incubate for 70 days, and hatchlings will stay with their mothers for several weeks or even months.

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Gharial populations have declined as much as 98 percent since the 1940s due to human activities like hunting and dam-making.

Gharials do not stalk and lunge at prey like other crocodilians—their snouts contain sensory cells that can detect vibrations in the water. By whipping their heads from side to side, the animals zero in on fish and grab them in their jaws, which are lined with more than a hundred teeth. While adults eat fish, their offspring also eat insects, crustaceans, and frogs.

Threats to survival

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the species as critically endangered. The biggest threats it faces are related to human activities.

Since the 1940s, the gharial's numbers have declined as much as 98 percent due to hunting for traditional medicine and drastic changes to their freshwater habitats. For instance, people have manipulated the flow of rivers, causing certain areas to dry out and making it more difficult for water-reliant gharials to survive. Young gharials are also susceptible to being caught in fishing nets, which can lead to injury or drowning.

Conservation

Concerns about the gharial’s status has led to a number of conservation efforts in recent decades. The Indian government granted the species full protection in the 1970s with the goal of reducing poaching.

In the 1970s and 1980s, conservation groups in India and Nepal launched rear and release programs that have introduced more than 6,000 captive-bred gharials into the wild. Unfortunately, the lack of effective monitoring means it’s unclear how successful these programs have been.