Washington, Feb 10 : More than 90 Gharial deaths in the National Chambal Sanctuary in India has led ecologists to determine that the species is under severe threat and might be facing extinction.
Gharials - often confused with crocodiles - are characterized by their long and thin snout and the "ghara" or pot on their head and eat only fish. They are one of the most threatened crocodile species and are classified as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union.
According to a report in ENN (Environmental News Network), post mortems on the gharials found dead at the National Chambal Sanctuary show debilitating gout affecting the animals.
For analysis into the deaths, a team of international veterinarians and crocodile experts - on government request - is working closely with scientists from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI).
Early results point to levels of heavy metals - lead and cadmium - leading to immune-suppression, or reduction in the body's ability to fight pathogens, and thereby making the animals susceptible to infections.
According to Dr. Sandeep Behera, Freshwater Species coordinator with WWF-India, "We are not ruling out any possibility. Whatever may be the reason for these deaths, one thing is certain: the situation is as grim as 1970 when the number of gharials had plummeted to an all-time low and their population could be restored only after government supported conservation efforts."
"This is a national crisis - gharials are an important freshwater species. Too few of them remain in the wild and the continuing loss indicates a long term negative effect on the ecosystem," said Ravi Singh, WWF-India's Secretary General and CEO, chair of the Crisis Management Group formed by the Indian Government.
Most of gharial mortalities have been reported in the Uttar Pradesh side of the river, near the confluence of the Chambal and the Yamuna that flows through India's bustling capital, Delhi, and the historic city of Agra.
Gharial casualties have been reported only on a 35-kilometre stretch before the confluence, and no casualties have been reported among any other freshwater species that share habitat with gharials.
"There is no room for complacency - while casualties are now reported from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, upstream stretches of Chambal (in Rajasthan) should not be considered safe," said Ravi Singh.
The species is already extinct in its former range in Pakistan, Bhutan, and Myanmar, and most likely also in Bangladesh. Not more than 1400 specimens remain in the wild today, with less than 200 in their breeding age group.
Besides Chambal, gharials are found in isolated stretches of the Ken, Son, Girwa and Ganges rivers in India.