Keeping the river clean: Chambal River, India

Posted on marzo, 26 2007

India's Chambal River is ranked as one of the country's cleanest rivers. But increased habitat destruction, pollution and poaching is threatening the river's freshwater species. Find out more about protecting the Chambal and the gharial, one of the world's most endanagered freshwater crocs.
“When I started my work in wildlife 18 years ago, the Chambal River was bountiful with crocodiles, turtles, dolphins and otters,” remembers Dr Sandeep Behera, WWF-India’s freshwater species coordinator.

“Today, one has to be extremely lucky to sight even a few gharial in the area.”

A gharial!? A gharial is one of the most endangered freshwater crocodile species, with only 2,000 left in the wild, and of that number only about 200 are breeding adults. The species is already extinct in Pakistan, Bhutan and Myanmar, and most likely in Bangladesh. Other than a few recorded nests in Nepal, the largest remaining populations are found in just three locations in India along the Son (2 nests), Girwa (20 nests) and Chambal (68 nests) rivers.

Although the Chambal River — a tributary of the Yamuna River in northern India — is ranked as one of India’s cleanest rivers, its gharial population — estimated at 700 — is facing decline.

“This is a result of habitat destruction, river pollution, poaching, unregulated fishing and extensive sand mining, which is responsible for the loss of gharial nesting sites,” said Dr Behera.

“River dolphins, otters and other freshwater species are also being affected. They are facing serious threats from human interference.”

Freshwater sanctuary
The Chambal River, like most rivers in India, plays an integral role in the lives of the thousands of communities living along the banks of the river. As one local villager explained: “This river is our lifeline. It gives us water for drinking and agriculture. We worship this river.”

In an attempt to preserve the sanctity of the river and its watershed, the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary was created in 1978. The sanctuary, covering a 5,400km2 area across the three Indian states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, protects a 400km stretch of the Chambal River.

But despite the protection, the sanctuary is still at risk.

“One of the main reasons for the sanctuary’s ‘death’ is the lack of inter-state coordination in conservation efforts, be it surveying, monitoring or enforcement,” said Dr Behera.

One local forest department official, who asked to remain anonymous, pointed out that despite fishing being illegal in the sanctuary area it still goes on despite issuing notices to fishermen. He complained that the forest department does not have enough staff to monitor the area. In some cases, a single forest guard is responsible for patrolling stretches of river up to 40km.

But the news is not all bad. Concerned by dwindling crocodile numbers, the state government of Madhya Pradesh started a rehabilitation programme and captive breeding centre in the National Chambal Sanctuary, as well as in the state’s Ken Gharial and Son Gharial sanctuaries.

Over the past three decades about 12,000 gharial eggs have been collected from wild nests to be bred in captivity. As a result, more than 5,000 young gharials have been released into protected areas. While numbers have increased incrementally in the Chambal River, in other rivers, like the Mahanadi in Orissa, only two gharials survived from the 700 that were released there.

“These efforts have been a good start, but a lot more needs to be done,” said noted conservationist Romulus Whitaker of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT), a partner organization of WWF-India.

He added that people’s participation in the conservation of the area and immediate intervention at the village level in and around the Chambal River is important.

Coordinating conservation
In fact, calls by conservationists and concerned citizens alike have had an impact, with conservation efforts being scaled up along the river.

“The state governments of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are taking conservation management programmes in the Chambal Sanctuary seriously,” informed Suhas Kumar, Chief Forest Conservator in Madhya Pradesh.

“The forest departments monitor the populations of endangered species in the sanctuary regularly.”

It is not only the gharial that is in danger, but other major aquatic species such as the Ganges River dolphin. A recent survey conducted throughout its distribution range in the Ganga and Brahmaputra river system identified less than 2,000 individuals in India, with about 90 in the Chambal.

The survey was conducted by WWF-India, together with the government of Madhya Pradesh, the Wildlife Institute of India, MCBT and others.

A WWF-India conservation plan for the endangered dolphin has been in place for several years now, working to curb habitat degradation and fisheries bycatch.

“The presence or absence of dolphins indicates the overall quality of the river system,” added Dr Behera, who leads WWF-India’s dolphin conservation efforts in the Upper Ganga region. “Dolphins can only survive if the flow, temperature and quality of water are appropriate.”

“We hope that the concerned states will devise a suitable plan to save the dolphin and the gharial,” he added. “The future of these animals depends upon the cooperation between states, but equally important, the public at large.”

* Shivangi Mishra is a Communications Officer at WWF-India.


• The Chambal is one of five tributaries of the Yamuna River. The river flows north-northeast through Madhya Pradesh, running for a time through Rajasthan, then forming the boundary between Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh before turning southeast to join the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh state. During the monsoon season, from July to September, the river floods, submerging bridges and disrupting rail and road traffic between Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. At other times of the year the water level is very shallow and difficult to navigate.

• Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) are distinguished by its very long and narrow snout (an adult male has a large bulb on top of the tip of his snout), the crocodile spends most of its time submerged in water feeding on fish. Females lay their eggs on sandy riverbanks.

• The Ganges River dolphin (Platanista gangetica) inhabits the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Karnaphuli-Sangu river systems of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. This vast area has been altered by the construction of more than 50 dams and other irrigation-related projects, with dire consequences for the river dolphins.
Gharials are one of the most endangered freshwater crocodile species, with only 2,000 left in the wild. Other than a few recorded nests in Nepal, the largest remaining populations are found in just three locations in India along the Son, Girwa and Chambal rivers.
© WWF / Michel Gunther
A stretch of protected river, Chambal River, India.
© Dr Sandeep Behera / WWF-India
Dr Sandeep Behera, WWF-India’s Freshwater Species Coordinator, patrolling for gharials and Ganges River dolphins on the Chambal River.
© WWF-India
Gharial basking on a river bank. Chambal River, India.
© Dr Sandeep Behera / WWF-India
A recent survey estimates about 90 Ganges River dolphins in the Chambal River.
© WWF / François Xavier Pelletier