Growing up in Nepal I dreamt of one day working with crocodilians, especially gharial, which I adored because of both their uniqueness, and the optimistic tale of how they had been saved from the brink of extinction. I was particularly inspired by Dr Tirtha Man Maskey, whose thesis on gharial conservation in 1989 has provided a vital baseline for understanding gharial in Nepal, and whose dedication to the species was instrumental in its survival. I am privileged to have been given permission by the Government of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation to conduct research on the gharial in Chitwan National Park, in order to provide a scientific baseline for further gharial conservation.
I have been very lucky to work alongside Conservation Officer Bed Bahadur Khadka, who has run the Gharial Conservation Breeding Centre (GCBC) and conducted research on gharial in Nepal for many years. With Bed and his amazing team at the GCBC, we are using radio telemetry to inform conservation. In 2018 and 2019, we captured and tagged twenty free-living gharial. The team of the GCBC (pictured) are from the indigenous fisherfolk communities of Chitwan and have exceptional knowledge of the rivers in this area. The gharial were captured from traditional dug-out canoes using both throw nets and longer nets set underwater (pictured). Gharial were tagged with either VHF or GPS radio transmitters after capture, and quickly re-released. Since then, myself and gharial tracker Prakash Basnet have been following up gharial movements, and determining how much of the river is used by individual gharial, how interconnected the rivers in Chitwan are for the gharial population, and what seasonal differences there are in gharial habitat choice and river use.
We have also been tagging gharial released as part of the GCBC’s ongoing headstarting programme. The headstarting (or ‘rear-and-release’) programme began in 1978 when the Government of Nepal founded the Gharial Conservation Breeding Centre in response to collapsing gharial numbers in Nepal and internationally. Despite the release of large numbers of gharial into the rivers of Chitwan, the population is still struggling to recover. In order to understand why the release of so many gharial has not led to an equivalent increase in the population, it is vital to understand the fate of gharial released from the GCBC. Our tagged gharial allow us to conduct post-release monitoring for a sample of released gharial. We are tracking these gharial intensively for the two years following release, in order to understand their dispersal, acclimation to wild, and survival. The data from this research will inform the GCBC release strategy, with the aims of improving survival of released gharials, and increasing their fidelity to National Park protection. As well as our gharial tracking, I have been assisting Bed Khadka in his research into gharial growth rates post-release, in collaboration with EDGE Fellow Ashish Bashyal.
I have also been investigating the reproductive behaviour of both tagged and untagged adult gharial in Chitwan. Working closely with EDGE Fellow Ranjana Bhatta, we have been documenting the reproductive characteristics and behaviours of gharial in both the Rapti and Narayani rivers. I was fortunate to have worked closely with the late Som Lal Bote, who was a nest watcher for the gharial conservation programme in Chitwan National Park for many years, and who shared his ecological knowledge about and long experience of gharial nesting with us (pictured). I am interested in the key parameters of gharial reproduction in Chitwan, such as at what size gharial reach reproductive maturity, how frequently females nest, and how far females travel to mate and nest. Additionally, we are interested in how gharial interact with the mugger crocodiles which share the same nesting beaches, as mugger are a known predator of young gharial. Although this is very fascinating, it can be a little nerve wracking at time, as mother muggers are not quite so tolerant of prying zoologists as mother gharial are! We prioritise using remote monitoring methods for our work, using camera traps and modified action cameras to document gharial whilst minimally influencing their behaviour.
Currently, I am a DPhil student at the Zoological Society London’s Institute of Zoology and the University of Oxford Department of Zoology. My research is a collaboration with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the Chitwan National Park, the National Trust for Nature Conservation, Himalayan Nature and ZSL – Nepal.