The pointy Gharial snout

An encounter with an endangered adult female gharial where the story ended up with me being alive

the unfinished love story with the lady gharial

          Imagine a crocodile moving towards you, but your adrenaline rush is not frightening you, on the contrary, you are still there the whole time, it's trying to sneak up on you. Sounds like documentary of one of Steve Irwin, the crocodile man's videos! O Yes! that's exactly what happened with me. The only difference was he was a damn experienced guy and I am just the opposite. lol

But wait a sec, you are probably checking out the cover pic and pondering over the 3rd word in the first line, "crocodile" again and again, Isn't it? "Are the two related?" Ohh, Yes, definitely they are. As a matter of fact they along with their brethren the fresh water crocodiles and the salt water crocodiles had the same ancestor, since the Cretacious periods. These are crocodiles who have evolved over several thousands of years and got their snouts transformed into one that resembles a saw machine's blade.  This species separated from the rest of the stream at a very early stage. Scientists beleive they have evolved form Phytosaurs, whose main diet was fish and marine organisms in freshwater. These fish eating crocodiles are termed as 'Gharials' or also known as Gavials. The long and pointy snout helps them . Gharials once found in plenty across Asia, is now endemic to only Indian subcontinent. Thanks to the fast depleting habitat due to the ever increasing population and its never ending demands.

           The wildlife Sanctuary of Tikarpada in Odisha is filled with flora and fauna of all sorts. It's a huge ecosystem which I think is equivalent to Bhitarkanika, As a matter of fact, the latter might have more population of Crocodiles, but it is the presence of Leopards, Tigers, and Gharials here, that have made it a larger and more complex ecosystem than its elder and more well-known cousin, Bhitarkanika. The Gharials have been introduced in the Mahanadi river and conservation efforts are being carried out for maintaining a healthy population of the crocodiles and especially the gharials. This precious ecosystem lies just beside the Satkosia Tiger Reserve, where attempts were made to introduce tigers, but eventually due to poaching, the inability of the forest rangers to access the Naxalite areas, and owing to various other such factors the tigers either died or they migrated to other forests through various corridors available between these jungles. Leopards, however, owing to their excellent ability to survive and adapt themselves to any environment have survived here. But they are mostly nocturnal and can be seen very rarely if one goes into the core forest at night. Although, as their elder and stronger feline cousins, the Tigers, are absent here, they also move out in the daytime in search of prey and patrolling.

          Gharials get their names from the bulb like structure present at the end of their snout. In India, ‘gharaa’ is a small pot in the local language, and since the bulb on the snout resembles this shape, these creatures came to be known as Gharials. Gharials are quite large animals with an average length of 4.5m//14.8ft, larger than the American and the Nile Crocodiles. The largest Gharial found till date was +6m//19.6ft long! Yes, it’s the size of the Muggers (Indian Fresh water crocodiles) and Salties. Sounds intimidating right? But they are not man eaters. Although they do feed on human corpses, that are floated in the rivers due to some traditions of the people in the territories where they reside. So, it does not mean you can approach them without any consequences! Every creature for self-defence, including us will attack or defend itself, isn’t it? Gharials are the fastest crocodiles in water, owing to their large, flattened tails that helps them row water with tremendous pressure and a pointy snout that makes them very hydrodynamic. Their pointy snout along with interlocking serrated teeth is an adaptation for hunting and eating fishes. Owing to all these features, their bite force is probably not as much strong as other crocs but they are the fastest and can swim as fast as fishes! Pretty amazing, huh!

          Male Gharials use the bulb (only males have this, which makes Gharials, the most sexually dimorphic croc) on their snout, which devoid of any bone or cartilage, act as a resonating chambers, to produce a far reaching ‘popping’ sound that helps them attract females. Each gharial has its own frequency of mating call. This helps the females to pinpoint a male accurately and easily. Gharials’ mating takes place under water and sometimes their backs are visible on the surface of water during copulation. A female Gharial after copulation, lays the eggs on a river-bank and covers them with sand. The temperature of incubations decides the sex of the babies. Higher the temperature, more probability are of males and vice vera. Gharial eggs are about the size of a baseball. On an average she lays about 40 eggs/clutch. In some cases, they lay more. The highest number recorded till now is 97! Imagine your belly full of 40-60 cricket balls! You might be saying “Umm, NO Thank YOU!” In spite of this, the IUCN has labelled them critically endangered and records testify this as there are less than 1000 breeding adults in the wild. Interestingly, unlike other crocodiles, the females due to the thin snout are unable to carry their babies in their mouth, but the babies climb on her back and catch a ride to the waters. And once more, unlike other crocodilian species, gharial adult males and even the juvenile ones will undertake parenthood responsibilities, (which is kind of a parenthood internship for the juveniles and a show of parenthood capabilities for the adults), that might one day make them dominant adult males.

          Let me share with you an encounter of mine with one of these majestic beasts. It was the Satkosia Nature camp that sheltered us for the 1 night of our short adventure in the jungles of Satkosia Tiger Reserve. We a gang of 5, reached there at noon. After a sumptuous lunch and a nap of  2hrs, at 1530 hrs we started for Tikarpada wildlife sanctuary. It was roughly a 25 mins drive. The way to the reserve was filled with fresh countryside air and one can breathe in tons of oxygen. I guess such is nature without the polluting machines of humans.

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 We reached the Crocodile Reproduction and research center, where the crocodiles are bred. It was adjacent to the river of Mahanadi where reside the float of crocodiles. There are stairs leading to a dockyard below, from where boat rides can be availed. It was here, just beside the dock, around 12-13 ft away, my eyes caught this beautiful and gorgeous lady, which I shall never forget. Out of my 5 mates, only 1 of them, Dibyendu Samal, an adventurer, travelaholic and a very passionate nature enthusiast, was with me and accompanied me downwards towards the dockyard, towards which I was pulled in by her beauty. She was a 10 ft approx long Gharial, resting along the bank of the river partly surrounded by reeds.

The fact that it's a female can be understood by the absence of the ghara, a bulbous knob (narial excrescence) present at the end of their snout. The ghara also renders gharial the only visibly sexually dimorphic crocodilian.a bulbous knob (narial excrescence) present at the end of their snout. The ghara also renders gharial the only visibly sexually dimorphic crocodilian.a bulbous knob (narial excrescence) present at the end of their snout. The ghara also renders gharial the only visibly sexually dimorphic crocodilian.

As we were stepping down towards the dock, towards her, my adrenaline levels rose. Such a majestic creature she was. We were now on the dockyard. I asked my friend to stay put 2 steps away from the dock. I can't let my adrenaline to cause any harm to someone else, especially my friend. He was at a safe distance. Now my mind was free from worry. 

 Our love story started unfolding now. As she saw me coming on the dock, she turned towards me. Curious, she started sneaking up on me little by little. I was well aware of the fact that gharials have never been known to attack any human, like their cousins Muggers or the saltwater crocodiles do. But I was also aware that after all these are wild animals and they should be given their spaces. Gharials however do not miss a good meal and have been known to eat human flesh of the dead that are floated on the rivers (according to several myths, post-death if the body is consumed by the mother Ganges, the goddess of the river, the sins of the individual are washed away!).

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 Her concentration was now absolutely towards me. The dock was 4 feet away from her. I was initially 4ft away from the edge of the dock, but as I went bit closer, around 2 ft more (And now I was 2 feet away from the edge of the dock) She moved in a bit more closer now. 

I was a bit suspicious now, so I moved back a bit, around 2.5 ft approx. She was still moving in closer, but as soon as I stepped back, she went a few inches back and stayed there for some time.

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Overcoming my fear, I stepped in again 1-1.5 ft, and this time we were only 3-4 ft away.

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I videographed her for few more minutes. Her looks were so hypnotizing that I was unable to move away from that gorgeous beast. But it was already 18:40 hrs and even twilight was inviting the night. I shot some more pics of her on my retina using my 576MP lens! ;)  

It was time for me to take her majesty's leave.

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 An evening with marvelous gifts from Mother Nature, followed by a pristine twilight lay in front of us. What more gifts can someone expect from Mother Nature. Below You will find a link of a video recording of whatever happened above

We were then joined by another friend of ours, Shuvomoy Basak, who also happens to be a travel freak cum nature enthusiast. Together we let ourselves drown into the the magnificient scape, nature presented before us.

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After an hour at around 1900hrs when it was quite dark, we finally had to bid adieu to the abode of the mighty crocodiles.

Good Bye Tikarpada, Meet you soon.