River Biodiversity

When a gharial landed in a cow shelter in Delhi

It’s been more than six months since I got a Whatsapp video forward from my friend Yayati Bhardwaj along with a message in Hindi about some cow vigilant rescuing a ‘crocodile’ from Swaroop Nagar area of Delhi and sending it to a cow shelter in Narela, a bustling town in North West Delhi bordering Haryana.

It was around 07:00 pm on November 12, 2021 when busy in market, I had quick glance over the video. It was not very clear and shot with loud Punjabi music playing in the background. It showed some monitor lizard kind reptile lying motionlessly on ground with wheat grains scattered around it. At first sight, I found nothing to be surprised or worth responding.

Half an hour later, I got a call from Yayati when I reached home. He asked me if I had seen the video and was there any possibility of presence of ‘crocodile’ in Yamuna upstream of Wazirabad barrage. He also told me that it was kept in a cow shelter named as Sri Ram gaushala.

Now I was a bit serious but without re-checking the video, I told him that it looked like a monitor lizard. Moreover I had come across few viral videos claiming presence of crocodile in Ganga canal in Ghaziabad, UP during monsoon which turned out to be untrue.

So I rejected the possibility of crocodile in NCR stretch of Yamuna river. “गोपाटड़ा, ग्वेरा होगा भाई, मगरमच्छ की तो कोई सम्भावना नहीं।“ When he insisted that it was a small ‘crocodile’ like animal and he got the video from reliable friend, I carefully re-watched the video clip and was left in disbelief after seeing the long snout and saw shaped tail that it was indeed not the ‘crocodile’ but juvenile gharial in a stressed condition.

दीपक भाई गौसेवक (नरेला जिला) की  सरूप नगर से ेके मगरमच्छ को रेस्क्यू करके नरेला गौशाला में भिजवाया नमन है इन सभी गौसेवकों को जय मातृभूमि जय भारत  The text and video of gharial shared in the whatsapp group.

Common public unexposed to these reptiles, can hardly differentiate between the two species and despite some basic differences, they often misidentify a gharial as crocodile (Magarmachh). 

The video made me curious and I decided to confirm its authenticity and look for credible information on rescue claims. Being familiar with Narela and Yamuna river, I believed that it had nothing to do with the river in the city. Nevertheless, I shared the video in a local whatsapp group requesting details of Sri Ram Gaushala in Narela.

The effort was futile. The searches on internet were of no help either. Having made no headway, I asked Yayati to trace and share the mobile numbers of the person who had shared the video first. He checked with his friends and got the contact number of the original sender.

However, when contacted, the person refused to share any information. He turned suspicious on repeated attempts and started responding rudely even questioning the purpose behind calls and interest in the animal. Later on, the phone was switched off.

Even after spending couple of hours, there was no clue either on the cowshed or on the endangered reptile. On top of it, the strange responses and switching off the phone by the original sender, complicated the puzzle.

By 11:00 pm, I was sure of few things. First, the video was not fake. Second, the gharial was in some trouble. Third, the social media would not help much. So I decided to try other ways. I remembered of few guashalas in Narela periphery and decided to visit them.

Next morning, the first cow shelter I reached was in fact named as Sri Ram Gaushala on Narela-Singhu Border road. I saw few volunteers feeding the cows under rows of tin sheds there. A man with groomed beard and strong physique probably the care taker was sitting outside with two other visitors.

I was aware of violent incidents involving cow vigilantes in recent years and knew risks of engaging with them. I had intentionally kept some breads with me for the cows and pretended to be a random visitor. After strolling leisurely for couple of minutes outside the shelter but secretly scanning the area, I noticed one of the staff time and again visiting a large iron cage placed outside the cow-shelter partially covered under tarpaulin sheet.

“कुछ भी ना खा रहा ये तो” (It’s eating nothing) the staff casually murmured. Displaying curiosity, I moved swiftly towards the cage and saw a gharial probably a juvenile one lying still on the ground with a layer chaff and a vertically cut plastic drum filled with water . It was looking frightened and one of its front limbs was turned in abnormal way, may be due to some injury.  

Image of the gharial kept in a cage in the Narela gaushala.

Stealthily sticking phone camera to the iron mess, I tried to take few pics quickly before being stopped by the care taker. I felt a bit relaxed but the animal was in dire need of rescue.

Exercising some restraint, I started talking to caretakers trying to figure out from where, when and how they had got the animal. In friendly tone; I told them they can’t keep the animal there and must inform forest department without delay. I even offered them to share numbers of concerned officials. But soon, I realized that finding out the endangered animal was easier part than ensuring its safe handling and relocation by experts.

As anticipated, the caretakers refused to inform the forest department. They were having their own grudges against the department. “They never help us in rescue of cows and other animals, why shall we let them interfere in this issue. We have saved its life and have right to decide where it should be kept or sent” said one of the care takers.

Through the interaction, I came to know that they had spotted the gharial near Kundli-Manesar-Palwal (KMP) expressway, Sonipat in early morning hours of November 12. One of the caretakers even shared a picture showing a gharial lying on the road amid some parked and moving heavy vehicles.

Image of the gharial on KMP expressway, Sonipat as shared and mentioned by a care taker.

He also told me that the gharial was crossing the busy expressway, when they happened to pass through it. Seeing the gharial they thought it would be run over by fast moving vehicles hence decided to take it along with them.

Since the video had gone viral in local social media groups, the caretakers were getting phone calls probably alerting them on legal implications of keeping the schedule I wild animal in a cow shelter. They were possibly also in touch with some forest officials from Haryana side and were planning to take the gharial to Pipli Zoo in Kurushetra by themselves; but had no intention to hand it over to forest officials from either Haryana or Delhi.

I was worried about the safety and survival of the distressed reptile. Staying there was of no use. So I left the site and on way back raised the SOS alarm sharing the details with officials from National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), some wildlife rescue experts and organizations I knew.

The feedback by concerned suggested that informing forest department, Delhi was the best way forward. So, the information was shared with Vipul Pandey, IFS, Dy. Conservator of Forests (DCF), North Division.

For next two days, I kept following up on the issue. I learnt that by the evening of November 13 itself, a team from Wildlife SOS and Forest Department separately had visited the cow-shelter but did not find the gharial there. Same happened next day with forest department team from Delhi.

So, whereabout of the gharial became a mystery. Similarly, how come the reptile reached the expressway was puzzling. I thought of its natural environs and some possible routes leading to the expressway.

The Chambal river sanctuary is the only natural habitat of the reptile in the country. Both the Gharial Eco-Park, the breeding centre in Morena, Madhya Pradesh and Beas Conservation Reserve where it is being re-introduced in Punjab are located more than 350 km from the KMP stretch of Sonipat in opposite direction. Even the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary where the animal has been regularly released is located about 100 km away eastward.        

It seemed next to impossible that the gharial sailed upstream Beas river to Bhakra reservoir on Sutlej, then swimming down to Western Yamuna Canal via Bhakra-Yamuna link and finally reaching the site via Drain Number 8.

Moving upstream Yamuna from Chambal all the way through Agra, Mathura, Delhi the worst polluted stretch of the river with four barrages along the way also seemed totally impractical. Similarly, reaching Delhi stretch of Yamuna river via Gang Nahar or Hindon cut from Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary seemed improbable.

Given the complex network of canals indirectly linking Sutlej-Yamuna and Yamuna-Ganga with scores of regulators on both side of canals; it seemed unlikely that the animal could reach the KMP crisscrossing these waterways without being spotted or stuck.

So, how the reptile reach the rescue location on its own seemed difficult to understand. Two possibilities remained. Either it was released there deliberately by someone or the reptile somehow escaped while being trafficked.

Screen shot of video and text of the gharial rescue as shared in local whatsapp group.

“Being a reptile, gharial can’t lift its body up for long and walk long distances, it was most probably kept in captivity locally and left unattended by someone there” stated Manoj Misra, a retired IFS officer and convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan.

It has been over six months now since the incident. However I often go back in my mind into the experience of locating the endangered species in my town while trying to resolve the mystery behind its reaching the expressway. For lack of any credible information so far, Manoj Misra’s theory sounds closest to reality.

On the whereabout of the gharial presently, I contacted the DCF again on May 26, 2022 and was informed that it was taken to Chambal Sanctuary from Pipli Zoo, Kurukshetra by forest officials Haryana. He however did not have contact numbers for concerned officials of Haryana and Chambal Sanctuary to confirm the same. Meanwhile, praying for safety and survival of the gharial, I am still keenly waiting for an official statement on the curious incident.

Bhim Singh Rawat (bhim.sandrp@gmail.com)

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