The fate of the gharial is inextricably linked to fate of people, and both depend on healthy rivers for survival. People living along the rivers where gharials still survive are farmers, pastoralists, fishermen, and general laborers. Crocodiles in general have never been loved but most river dwellers recognize that gharials don’t pose any great threat to humans or livestock. Gharials do eat fish, however, and prefer the same deep water areas that are popular with gill-netting fishermen. Conflicts with gharials have increased in recent years as traditional fishing methods such as throw nets, hook and line, and scoop nets were replaced with modern nylon gills nets, which are responsible for a significant number of gharial deaths each year. Because gharials eat fish they are often blamed for the drop in fish populations or are seen as competition for this resource, and therefore killed.
But the Indian Gharial is also traditionally a sacred animal. The “vahana” or vehicle of the river goddess Ma Ganga is a crocodile, and especially in gharial range areas she has often been depicted astride a gharial. One of the challenges of gharial conservation today is to rekindle the respect and reverence of the people for this ancient animal. In order to achieve this needs of local people living alongside the gharial must be considered, and conservation solutions will have to be found that are mutually beneficial for both people and wildlife.
Past conservation efforts did not involve local people enough, and when protected areas were declared local people lost the rights to natural resources they had enjoyed for generations. This caused many to feel resentment toward the gharials and conservation efforts. Past experience has shown that the goals of gharial conservation will not be achieved until the needs of the people living alongside gharials are met.
The GCA is working toward finding solutions to this dilemma through community education and eco-development programs to improve the quality of life of riparian people and achieve conservation goals. This may include alternative livelihood programs for people currently employed by illegal fishing and other environmentally destructive industries. Ultimately the health of the rivers will determine the fate of both riparian people and gharials. As riparian people are the ultimate guardians of the rivers the fate of rivers depends on their cooperation in conservation efforts.