Stumbling into a secret crocodile breeding ground is likely more startling than exciting for most people—unless you’re a scientist and those crocs just happen to be one of the world’s most endangered reptiles. That’s what happened to researchers from the Zoological Society London (ZSL) and Biodiversity Conservancy Nepal when they found a group of adult gharial crocodiles, watching over 100 hatchlings deep inside Nepal’s Bardia National Park.
The species, Gavialis gangeticus, has not been recorded breeding in the borders of the park since 1982. Gharial crocodiles are oddball reptiles with bulging eyes and a narrow toothy snout. In adulthood, they can reach 16 feet in length and weigh up to 550 pounds.
But the population has dropped 98 percent since the 1940s, according to a ZSL press release. The crocs are now listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, which administers the global endangered species list, with only 650 to 900 mature individuals left in 14 locations in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. The species has already gone extinct in the nations of Bhutan, Myanmar and Pakistan.
So finding a breeding colony of the animals is a big deal. Ashish Bashyal, conservation scientist with the Biodiversity Conservancy Nepal and co-founder of the Nepal Gharial Conservation Initiative, tells Greg Norman at Gizmodo that despite searching, the team had never found baby gharials in the park—even though it supports an excellent gharial habitat.
“Something that was bugging me was that we had been working there for almost three years, had conducted more than three surveys, but we had never found hatchlings, baby gharials,” he says. “So they are out there, they have good habitat, there are adult males, adult females. So on the surface everything is in place for them to breed and reproduce… but we were not finding any babies.”
During a survey in February, however, the project witnessed gharials showing signs that they might be mating. So the team decided to revisit the area in June, when any resulting offspring would hatch. Getting to the site in the dry season, however, was arduous. Low water levels meant they couldn’t raft down the river, the easiest way to access the site. Heavy rains two days before their scheduled trip also made driving close to the site impossible. So the team trekked a rugged 6.2 miles through the jungle in 104 degree temperatures, encountering fresh tiger tracks along the way.
The slog paid off. They spotted the gharial site from a nearby ridge, observing dozens of little croclings swimming around and basking on a sandbar.
“At around [one foot] in size, they look exactly like miniature versions of adult gharials – so incredibly cute,” Bashyal says in the press release.
The initial find took place in June, though details about the discovery are just being released. ZSL researcher Rikki Gumbs tells Helen Briggs at the BBC that the little reptiles were spotted again recently, after the summer monsoon rains.
“They’ve made it through the first big hurdle,” Gumbs says. “Especially with the threats that are impacting the species, it’s very important that these hatchlings can make it to adulthood.”
But the monsoons are the least of their worries. The reptiles, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, declined after river dams changed and fragmented their habitat throughout South Asia. The animals were frequently hunted for their hides and eggs and also caught in fishing nets. While harming the animals is now illegal, other problems continue to persist. Dam construction, irrigation canals, sand mining and pollution are all still threats to the long-nosed crocs.
Bashyal says that the best protection for the animals is to get local people involved. He hopes to set up “gharial guard groups” to watch out for the animals, similar to groups established in Chitwan National Park, the only other site in Nepal that gharials call home.
“People generally have a great affinity for gharials, they don't attack humans as they generally feed on fish–and their snout is much too fragile,” he says in the release. “We want to try and harness that love for the animal into local community conservation action in order to help monitor how the hatchlings fair.”
Helping the gharial, he tells Norman at Gizmodo, could help many other species that call Nepal’s rivers home. “Ecologically, I always like to emphasize the fact that they are like the tiger of the rivers,” he says. “They are an umbrella species, so if we protect our waterways, protect our gharials then that will benefit other endangered species we have such as the gangetic dolphin and the smooth-coated otter.”
Bardia is not the only spot where the crocodiles are breeding. In August, the National Chambal Sanctuary in India announced that over 5,000 hatchling gharials were born in the river over the summer. However, it will still take lots of monitoring of pollution and poachers to allow even a small percentage of the baby crocs to make it to adulthood.