Crocodile hunting was banned in India in 1972, but by that time all three species found in the country (the gharial, Gavialis gangeticus; the saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus; and the mugger or marsh crocodile, C. palustris) were on the verge of extinction (Bustard, 1974). Ironically, it was the gharial, which is completely harmless to man and of relatively low value in terms of its hide, which was most endangered. Stabilization of river banks and dam construction had greatly reduced the gharial's natural environment of free-flowing rivers. In addition, the increased use of nylon fishing nets resulted in the accidental ensnaring and drowning of many gharials. In 1973, it was estimated that fewer then 100 individuals of Gharial continued to survive in the wild in India. While larger numbers of saltwater crocodile and mugger were known to exist, they were not enough to avoid the total extinction of the species in the short-term future.
First priority was therefore given to ensuring continuity of the species. With the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) the Government of India launched a crocodile breeding and conservation project, initially in Orissa in the year 1975. The project was initiated under the guidance of Dr. H R Bustard. The scheme was subsequently extended to Uttaranchal, Rajasthan, west Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andamans, Assam, Bihar, and Nagaland. Once the site was selected, FAO assisted government wildlife workers to design and construct special rearing stations. FAO also helped to train local villagers in the collection of gharial eggs from the wild. This was especially important since improper collection could have resulted in the destruction of the last remaining gharial nesting sites.
Over a breeding lifespan of some 50 years a female gharial may produce as many as 2500 eggs, but in the wild a mortality rate of over 90 percent in the first three years of life is common. In the hatcheries, however, mortality was reduced to less than 30 percent.
By the time the project ended in 1982, more than 1000 gharials had been raised and released into protected areas or sanctuaries, increasing the total population more than tenfold. Local fishermen living within these sanctuaries have been employed as guards. The salary paid to the fishermen is more than that offered by poachers for assistance in locating crocodiles, and since poaching is virtually impossible without the active or at least tacit cooperation of local people; this has resulted in effective protection (FAO, 1983).
Similar schemes were also implemented for collection and raising of saltwater crocodile and mugger from eggs. As a result of the breeding projects and their management in 12 sanctuaries, the population of all three species has considerably increased. Thousands of crocodiles of these three species have been reared at 16 centres and several of these have been released into the wild. Presently, due to the overwhelming breeding success, forest departments have concluded captive breeding of the mugger.
Crocodile Breeding in Indian Zoos
In the last decade, the Indian zoological parks have been successfully breeding crocodiles. From a mere six zoos in 1980 breeding only the mugger crocodile (Bustard, 1980), today there are over 32 zoological parks in the country breeding all three Indian crocodilians species. Perhaps, a focused effort, a specialized know-how and creation of ideal conditions and facilities for captive breeding has led to this success. Technical personnel - trained specifically in crocodile breeding and management put in their skills into breeding crocodilians in captivity. And the decades since the launching of the Indian Crocodile Conservation Project, from 1975 to 1995, has seen a steady introduction and spread of captive reared Indian crocodilians into the various zoological parks around the country.
Zoological parks in India breeding Indian crocodilians
Gharial, Mugger & Saltwater Crocodile
Breeding of Gharial :
In the year 1980, the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) bred in captivity for the first time at the Nandan Kanan Biological Park in Orissa (Bustard 1980). This successful effort involved the collaboration and co-ordination between international and national zoological parks. The male came from the Frankfurt zoo and the females were from the Nandan Kanan and Trivandrum zoos. A large part of the credit for this first time ex-situ breeding in captivity goes to the meticulous planning and designing of the breeding enclosure at the Nandan Kanan zoo by HR Bustard, which simulates the gharial's natural habitat of a deep flowing river with adequate high-rise sandbanks. The breeding enclosure, together with a judicious mix of adult size classes to from a social group, minimal disturbance and provision of natural food culminated in that successstory, whichcontinues tothe presentdate. The Nandan Kanan ziological park has since providedmany zoos around the world with captive bred gharial for display and education.
The Nandan Kanan was followed by Kukrail Endangered Species Breeding Centre in Lucknow and soon Madras Crocodile Bank, Mysore zoo and Jaipur zoo also joined the select group of zoological parks in India in breeding the gharial.
Gharials are increasing in number and protected at a crocodile egg hatchery and farm near Orissa in eastern India
Breeding of Saltwater crocodile:
In India, Nandan Kanan zoo, Vishakhapatnam zoo and the Madras Crocodile Bank were the first to breed this crocodilian sub-species in captivity under simulated natural habitat conditions. The Vishakhapatnam Zoo in Andhra Pradesh went to the extent of even simulating water-level fluctuations similar to tidal mangroves. Today this hardy species breeds in six zoological parks in the country.
Breeding of Mugger:
As many as 32 zoological parks and almost all crocodile rearing centres are now breeding mugger in captivity. This widespread and adaptable species has responded very well to even the smallest of attention that has been provided to it.
Factors that contributed to this crocodile breeding success story: