May 16 was a huge day for the Reptile Department at the San Diego Zoo. This was the day we headed to the Los Angeles airport to pick up 10 young Indian gharials from India. We partnered with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (MCBT) for this extremely important animal transfer. The MCBT is one of the largest reptile zoos in the world and one of the oldest nongovernment environmental organizations in Asia. The process for importing these critically endangered crocodilians began five years ago with conversations between our Zoo and various Indian organizations and U.S. government agencies. Five years of calls and visits to Indian facilities, letters written and re-written, permit application after permit application, we finally had our import permit in 2011 and began to make concrete plans for the importation.
The staff at MCBT worked tirelessly applying for the various Indian permits and completing the official paperwork, building crates, and preparing the shipment details. Our staff worked hard preparing the exhibit for the arrival and moving other animals in order to accommodate our new residents. Staff and volunteers lent a hand by helping coordinate our arrival on Zoo grounds and interpreting for guests what we were up to and why. Our Veterinary Services staff did thorough exams—all in all, it was a long day, and we appreciated everyone’s efforts to help make it a success.
The import of these animals is significant because their population has been reduced to a very small number of widely spaced subpopulations of fewer than 235 individuals. This species has experienced a decline of 96 to 98 percent over a 3-generation period since 1946. The drastic decline in the gharial population can be attributed to a variety of causes including over-hunting for skins and trophies, egg collection for consumption, use in native medicines, and killing by fishermen. Hunting is no longer considered to be a significant threat; however, the wild population of gharials has undergone a drastic decline of about 58 percent between 1997 and 2006.
Conservation programs have been undertaken in India and Nepal to establish protected areas and restock them with animals born in captivity, but nowhere has restocking reestablished viable populations. San Diego Zoo Global manages the Gharial Conservation Fund, through which we are able to support much-needed gharial research and conservation efforts in the field. We plan to continue to partner with the MCBT and other zoos for the conservation of this amazing species.
This import has been very significant to the Species Survival Plan for gharials, as this new group of animals means the addition of new genetics and a younger demographic for zoo collections. Our Zoo is one of only seven North American zoos to house gharials. Head down to Tiger Trail at the Zoo to see these amazing young crocodilians for yourself!
Kim Lovich is an associate curator at the San Diego Zoo.