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Must act now to save the Chambal: Experts

Shatakshi Gawade | Updated on: 13 May 2017, 19:31 IST
Researchers Jeffery Lang (front, right) and Jailabdeen A (front, left) tag a female gharial while their local team members look on. (Shatakshi Gawade)

The latest gharial census gave environmentalists a reason for cheer – there are 93 more gharials, a critically endangered species, in the National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) than last year.

This seems like a small figure. But it is encouraging because the only healthy population of gharials surviving worldwide is found in the Chambal River.

The gharial population, which was 5,000 to 10,000 in the 1940s, has now shrunk to about 2,500. Of this population 1,255 live and breed in the NCS.

The gharial is one of the world’s rarest crocodilian species.

Alongside the gharials exist the red-crowned roof turtles, which the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) think, might just be more endangered than the gharial.

The Chambal is also home to the endangered Ganges river dolphin. It supports seven other rare turtle species, the mugger crocodile, the smooth-coated otters, the striped hyena, the Indian wolf and a host of other mammals.

There are, in all, 147 fish, 56 reptiles, 308 birds and 60 mammal species.

A number of these species have been eradicated completely from the rest of the Gangetic drainage.

Meanwhile, the gharial and the red-crowned roof turtles are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But none of the species in the Chambal is safe.

TSA's Sneha holds up a baby red-crowned roofed turtle for tagging (Shatakshi Gawade)

Perils at hand: Sand mining

Illegal sand mining and irregular flow of water from dams are threatening their survival in the Chambal ecosystem.

Overburdened forest guards patrol the river and adjoining areas. But they cannot touch the sand mafia, one of the biggest threats to the entire river ecosystem.

Brijmohan, an empathetic forest guard of the UP cadre, is sincerely interested in animal welfare. He knows it is important to stop sand mining, but he knows his limitations – he operates alone in the field, is not a resident of the area, and must be careful for the sake of his family back home.

Jeffery W. Lang, a researcher from the University of Minnesota and senior scientific adviser for the Gharial Ecology Project, is all praises for UP’s forest staff, including frontline staff like Brijmohan. He vouches for the support and concern of the bureaucracy.

But he believes that sand mining is unregulated and extensive. This hurts the gharial, which nests on the sand banks and basks on them.

Lang explains that water issues are a threat to the gharial as well. He has observed that there is no coordination in the release of water from different dams on the river.

If that is not enough, reports suggest that the construction of the Parbati-Kali Sindh-Chambal Link will divert 1,360 million cubic meters of water from the Parbati, Newaj and Kali Sindh rivers into either the Gandhi Sagar or the Rana Pratap Sagar Dams. This will strangle a steady source of water to the Chambal.

Water woes

Locally too, more water is being extracted for irrigation.

“Legally, water can be extracted when the level is high but no such restrictions are followed,” said Lang. Both these factors are likely to reduce the water flow in the Chambal.

TSA's Shailender Singh compared the current situation to a forest fire. “By the time committees are made and the lengthy discussions are done, this fire will have burned down the ecosystem,” he said.

“We need to act now, while the river is still clean!”

However, the Chambal River does not figure in the National River Conservation Plan.

The focus of the scheme, which is funded by the Centre, is on building an infrastructure for pollution abatement in polluted rivers. It does not, sadly, bother about protecting and conserving clean rivers.

The Centre and the state seem willing to wait till the Chambal is as choked and dying, much like the Yamuna, which it meets at Pachnada in Uttar Pradesh.

Development work, the duty of the government, has been left to conservationists in this region. It is not a surprise then, that people in the villages near the river are disgruntled and full of complaints against the sanctuary.

Though the Wildlife Protection Act prohibits them from harvesting any resources in the sanctuary – wood is chopped, water is drawn, and fish are caught. The forest machinery is left entangled in cases of individuals extracting resources.

The forest department does check if the wood being taken out is for an individual/local use. If it is, the people are let go, but legal action is initiated against commercial users.

But Lang is perplexed – how do you regulate and control resource use and limit it to locals, while not being exploitative?

Meanwhile, Suresh Rajput, the wildlife warden for Etawah district, believes that there is slow, but positive, change coming in the people’s attitude. To push this further, he believes that the people need to be told that the aquatic animals keep the river clean.

Rajput also insists that a scientific approach is necessary to ensure a healthy river ecosystem. “The technology already exists, we just need to make use of it,” he says.

He believes the police too need to be given the responsibility of protecting the forest and the river.

“The forest department ends up fighting with the police because they are complicit in some of the illegal fishing, felling and mining. But we are now making a demand to make the forest department a force too,” he says.

Ultimately, he turns philosophical. “The world is meant for everyone. We think it is only for us, as are the other animals living here. But the animals too have a fundamental right to life. If people understand this, there will be a big change!”

First published: 13 May 2017, 17:58 IST