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Male Gharials for Norgay crocodile breeding centre
Phuentsholing welcomed a rather unusual visitor - a 12-foot male gharial (gavialis gangeticus) crocodile.

The reptile travelled several hundred kilometres by road from Chitwan National Park in Nepal to its new home at the Norgay crocodile breeding centre in Phuentsholing.

Gharials are highly endangered

It was the second male gharial to be transported to Bhutan, the first one came by air on April 26, 2004 and will help to breed the endangered reptile at the Norgay breeding centre which has four gharials of which three are females. The forest department's wildlife incharge in Phuentsholing, Kinley Tshering, said that the two males from Nepal were in good health and of the right age for breeding. "We are looking forward to a successful breeding programme," he said.

Last year, three female gharials at the Norgay centre reached the mating age. The forest authorities tried to "translocate" a male from Chennai, India but it was not feasible. Early this year, a visiting delegation from the Nepalese department of forests to Bhutan agreed to provide two male gharials. "If the breeding programme is successful, we want to reintroduce the reptiles in all the large river systems in Bhutan," said Kinley Tshering. "There are indications that gharials were found in Manas in the past but due to loss of habitat and poaching, their existence have been completely wiped out," he said. Gharials today are highly endangered and are found in the wild only in India and Pakistan. According to forestry officials, the reptile has a vital ecological role as a master predator in the aquatic habitat. It eats up the weak and deceased fishes and dead animals thus keeping the river systems clean.

The Norgay crocodile breeding centre was established sometime in the 1970s with 12 crocodiles (crocodylus palustris) and seven gharials. Today the centre has 16 crocodiles led by a nasty looking 10-feet long alpha-male crocodile and four gharials. Only recently one among the four gharials was identified as a male. The centre has had little success in breeding. Of the many eggs laid by the crocodiles only 11 eggs could be successfully incubated and hatched. There have been no hatchlings from the gharials till date.

The Norgay breeding centre is faced with an even greater and more immediate problem - an acute lack of space for the reptiles. With barely 0.6-acre area the centre was becoming small and crowded for the reptiles according to Ram Bahadur Chhetri who has been working as a caretaker for the last 20 years. Rapid commercial constructions around the centre was also making the centre dirty and suffocating for the animals. "Looking at its surroundings and the small area of the centre, a much bigger place needs to be identified very soon for the reptiles to survive," said Ram Bahadur Chhetri who added that the reptiles lacked the space to move around and get enough exercise.

Recently, one of the younger crocodiles died and according to the caretaker's observations it died of obesity. "In its natural habitat it would have so much space to move," he said.

The head of the nature conservation division, Dr Sangay Wangchuk, agreed the centre needs to shift out to a bigger space at the earliest but there was no space available in Phuentsholing. The success of the gharial breeding programme could hinge on the crammed situation of the breeding centre.

Contributed by WWF, Bhutan office


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