Description and biology

The gavial (pronounced GAY–vee–al), also known as the gharial (pronounced GER–ee–al), is a large member of the crocodile order. It has an average body and tail length of 13 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters).

The gavial has a long, slender snout with parallel sides and narrow, sharp teeth—quite different from alligators and crocodiles. In fact, the gavial’s teeth are the sharpest of any member of the crocodile order.

The gavial is olive green to brown–gray in color on its upper body and lighter underneath. It feeds primarily on small fish and only occasionally on birds, dogs, and goats. It rarely eats humans.

Mature males of the species have a growth of tissue next to their nostrils. The tissue is shaped like an earthen pot, known as a “ghara” in north India. Many believe this is how the animal received its common name.

Around the beginning of April, after having mated, the female gavial digs a hole in a sandbank and lays a clutch (eggs produced at one time) of 30 to 50 oval–shaped eggs.

The eggs hatch after 83 to 94 days. Since predators threaten the eggs and the young gavials, the female gavial guards the nest and protects the young for a period of several months after they are born.

Habitat and current distribution

The gavial is almost extinct in Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Pakistan. It is critically endangered in India and Nepal. Biologists (people who study living organisms) believe fewer than 150 gavials exist in the wild.

The gavial prefers to inhabit high–banked rivers with clear, fast–flowing water and deep pools.

History and conservation measures

The gavial was still quite common in many areas in its range at the beginning of the twentieth century. Since then, its population has been severely reduced by the loss of its habitat and hunting for its hide.

The fast–flowing rivers favored by gavials are prime sites for the building of dams and reservoirs, which are used for hydroelectric facilities or for irrigation projects. When a dam or reservoir is constructed, the gavial’s habitat is destroyed as sandbanks and deep pools both upstream and downstream of the site are eliminated.

Hunting of the gavial, once widespread, has declined since countries in the animal’s range have passed laws protecting it. Large–scale commercial hunting no longer takes place, but illegal hunting by individual hunters still occurs.

Programs to aid in the recovery of the gavial have been established. In one program, gavial eggs are collected in the wild and then hatched in captivity. The captive–bred young are then released into protected areas in the wild.

Although this program has been successful, the species’ numbers remain dangerously low. Gavials inhabit several protected areas in India, the Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, and a reserve in Pakistan.