BHUBANESWAR: Till a few years back, gharials were an unexpected ‘catch’ for fishermen of Sana Mundali village, located on the banks of the expansive Mahanadi, in Cuttack district. It often led to killing of the already distressed reptiles.
Today, though, the fisherfolks ensure that the reptile, if caught in their fishing net, is handed over to the Forest department unscathed. This change in attitude towards the crocodile did not happen overnight. Years of awareness drives by the Satkosia forest and wildlife divisions and Nandankanan Zoological Park as part of the Gharial Species Recovery Programme later, the fishermen of not just Cuttack but also Angul (Tikarpada), Kendrapara and all other districts on Mahanadi basin have started realising that the fish eating crocodile species are neither of any harm to them nor to their livelihood.
In last 10 months, they have helped the Forest department in rescuing four gharials - three hatchlings and one adult. And in Sana Mundali village within Baranga panchayat - where around 40 fishermen families are dependent on Mahanadi - young fishermen are also helping researchers of the programme in monitoring the movement of gharials. Two others - Kalandi Charan Sutar and Hemant Dalai - have also started working as part-time watchers under the programme for monitoring and protection of the gharials.
Mahanadi has two crocodile species - mugger and gharial. While muggers continue to thrive in the river system, the population of the threatened species dwindled for a variety of factors.
After breeding of gharials stopped and their number fell alarmingly in the river, the officials of Satkosia Wildlife Division and Nandankanan Zoo worked out a blueprint in 2019 to revive their population and launched the recovery programme. Accordingly, 17 gharials were reintroduced to the fresh waters of the river near Tikarpada. However, fishing nets emerged as the biggest menace claiming lives of three gharials in subsequent years. Besides, the blasting method used by some fishermen to catch fish in the river also claimed the life of a gharial.
To find a solution, the Wildlife officials zeroed in on a cash incentive of Rs 1,000 to the fisherman for handing over the hatchling alive to the local forest staff. Also in case of damage to fishing nets, compensation is being paid to fishermen to buy new ones. “The cash incentive, compensation and continuous awareness drives worked and fishermen started reaching out to us whenever they caught a gharial”, said an official of Nandankanan Zoological Park. The researchers found success when 28 hatchlings were spotted in a nest in Baladamara area of the river within Satkosia gorge sanctuary in May 2021 for the first time after four decades.
Hadibandhu Sutar, a fisherman of Sana Mundali, said his community members had always feared gharial attacks because they did not know that it only hunts fishes. “But we realised that gharials are of no harm and they will be compensated for saving the crocodiles, fishermen of our village have been helping the forest staff in tracking gharial movement in Mahanadi”, he said.
On August 7 last, a fisherman found a hatchling in his net near Barada area of Cuttack and handed it over to forest officials. Subsequently, fishermen helped rescue two more hatchlings, including one caught in the net in Birupa river near Choti village in Kendrapara district. On December 21, a group of fishermen from Ekadal village on the left bank of Mahanadi helped the forest officials rescue a satellite transmitter tagged gharial trapped in their net for nearly two days.
With gharials travelling several hundreds of kilometers in Mahanadi and the ‘No Fishing Zone’ limited to only 10 km radius of Satkosia gorge of the river, officials associated with the program said fishermen play a major role in giving protection to the threatened species in the river.
“As nearly thousands of fishermen families depend on the Mahanadi river, the lifeline of the State, it wouldn’t be possible to execute the project without their support”, said Nandankanan Director Sanjeet Kumar.
The species is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act and as Critically Endangered under the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Fishing net fear
Gharials, because of their long snouts, are prone to get entangled in fishing nets, due to which they get trapped. Any fisherman who catches a gharial in his net, will be given Rs 1,000 and cost of fishing net for handing over the reptile to the Forest department. They can contact toll free number 18003456771.