The gharials (also called Indian gharial or ghavial) are one of the crocodilian-type reptiles and usually found in India. Although not normally kept as pets gharials are nevertheless mercilessly poached and hunted, while their habitats are being destroyed through human encroachment and pollution. It is not surprising, therefore, that they were almost on the brink of extinction in the early 1970’s and have been on the critically Endangered Species list every since.
What do They Look Like? The gharial’s most distinctive feature is its long, narrow snout full of sharp teeth. In fact, its name comes from the Indian word “ghara” which is the name of a pot that looks like the gharial’s long snout. The snout gets narrower and thinner the older the animal gets and in mature males, a bulbous growth appears on the tip which is used in mating rituals. Male gharials can reach a length of 6 metres and can weigh almost a tonne. However, despite their huge size, gharials are not dangerous to humans or other large mammals. Their narrow, fragile jaws mean that they are incapable of catching larger prey and are only adapted for eating fish. Furthermore, their anatomy means that they are unable to raise their body off the ground, which means they are slow and clumsy on land, only able to push their bodies forward across the ground in a form of “belly-sliding”. In the water, however, gharials are the fastest and most agile of all crocodilian species and their laterally-flattened tails give them incredible power in moving through water.
Adult gharals are usually dark olive-coloured whilst the young tend to be pale olive, both with brown blotches on the body and tail. Their hide is very tough and unfortunately, much sought after by hunters.
Where do They Live? Most gharials live in India’s rivers, preferring the calmer waters to the deeper fast-moving sections. As they are so clumsy on land, the only times a gharial leaves the water is to bask in the sun or to nest in the sandbanks. While they are predominantly found in India, a few can still be found in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma although these are seriously endangered. Basically, they are inhabit the six major river systems: the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Kaladan, and Irrawaddy.
What do They Eat? While adults feed solely on fish, young gharials feed mostly on invertebrates such as insects and small crustaceans, as well as small frogs. Adults are limited in their diet because of the shape of their snout, which is ideally adapted to catch small fish such as catfish, but some will also scavenge dead animals. Particularly large gharials might also hunt birds, crabs, small mammals and snakes. Interestingly, gharials also swallow stones which is believed to help them digest their food and this habit extends to any jewellery they may find (such as beads, ankle bracelets, etc) – which may have led to the myth that they are man-eaters.
Can You Keep a Gharial as a Pet? The simple answer is no. There are still only about 1,500 gharials left in the wild today, despite being on the critically endangered list for 20 years. Conservation efforts continue but they struggle against hunting and poaching activities (their snouts are believed to be an aphrodisiac and their eggs are collected for use in medicine), as well as the constant encroachment on their habitat, habitat loss from pollution and depletion of fish stocks. Having said that, 9 ‘protected areas’ have been set up for this reptile in India and there are captive breeding programmes in progress. The best place to enjoy these unique and fascinating reptiles would be in a zoo.