3 Types of Crocodiles & Where To Find Them In India

Crocodile sitting on the ground

India’s rich tapestry of biodiversity is a testament to its varied climates and landscapes, providing sanctuary to an impressive array of flora and fauna. Among the myriad of creatures that call the Indian subcontinent home, the crocodilians hold a place of awe and respect. These ancient reptiles, which have survived millions of years of evolutionary changes, are represented in India by three distinct species. Inhabiting both inland and coastal waters, crocodiles play a pivotal role in maintaining the health and equilibrium of aquatic ecosystems. As apex predators, they are instrumental in regulating the populations of fish and other aquatic organisms, ensuring the vitality and sustainability of their habitats. This article delves into the fascinating world of India’s crocodilians, exploring their habitats, behaviors, and the crucial role they play in the natural world.

 

1. Estuarine Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus)

The Saltwater Crocodile stands as both the largest species of crocodile and the largest living reptile on Earth, with unverified reports suggesting some individuals may grow to lengths of 8-10 meters. Predominantly found in the coastal waters of India, these crocodiles thrive in mangrove forests crisscrossed by water channels. Compared to other crocodile species, they spend a significant portion of their time in the water. Their distribution extends across South and Southeast Asia and reaches into Australia, where they have been involved in more human conflicts than any other crocodilian species.

Characterized by a relatively large head adorned with a pair of ridges extending from the eyes across the snout, adult Saltwater Crocodiles exhibit a dark coloration with lighter tan or grey patches and distinct dark bands and stripes on the lower flanks. The underside is a creamy yellow to white, transitioning to grey along the tail. Juveniles display a paler tan with black stripes and spots on their body and tail, which, although fading over time, never completely vanish. Female Saltwater Crocodiles are typically smaller than males, usually reaching lengths of 2.5 to 3 meters.

This species is exceptionally well-adapted for aquatic life, featuring a long, powerful tail, webbed hind feet, and formidable jaws. Saltwater Crocodiles have their eyes, ears, and nostrils positioned on the top of their head, allowing them to remain nearly submerged and concealed from potential prey. A specialized valve at the throat’s back enables them to open their mouths underwater without ingesting water. They are more aquatic and less armored along their back and neck compared to other crocodilians.

Saltwater Crocodiles have a diverse diet; juveniles feed on small insects, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, and fish, while adults can take down crabs, turtles, snakes, birds, buffalo, wild boar, and monkeys. They are ambush predators, often only exposing their eyes and nose while waiting for prey, capable of killing with a single jaw snap before dragging their catch underwater to consume more easily.

 

Conservation Status

Despite being afforded the highest level of protection under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, the species still faces significant threats. These include illegal hunting for its meat and eggs, as well as poaching for its commercially valuable skin. Additionally, habitat loss and alterations pose a serious risk to their survival. Moreover, the prevailing negative attitudes towards the species complicate the implementation of conservation measures, further endangering their existence.

 

Best Places to see Them

Bhitarkanika National Park and Sundarbans Tiger Reserve

 

Saltwater Crocodile

 

2. Marsh Crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris)

Contrary to Saltwater Crocodiles, Marsh Crocodiles are inhabitants of freshwater systems and exhibit less aggression towards humans. This species is distributed across India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, and potentially Bangladesh, with its range extending westward into eastern Iran. However, the Marsh Crocodile has faced local extinctions over much of its historical range, with viable populations now largely confined to Protected Areas. India and Sri Lanka are home to the majority of these populations.

In India, the Marsh Crocodile is reported to inhabit 15 states, including extensive areas within the Ganga River drainage system. Notable populations are found in the middle Ganga region (Bihar and Jharkhand), along the Chambal River (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh), and in Gujarat, indicating a significant presence in these areas despite the challenges of habitat loss and human encroachment.

The Mugger crocodile is considered a mid-sized to large member of the crocodilian family, with mature males reaching lengths of up to 4.5 meters (approximately 18 feet) and weights around 450 kilograms (about 1000 pounds). This species is notable for its unique appearance, closely resembling alligators more than other crocodiles. The coloration of young Muggers is typically a light tan with black bands across their bodies and tails, while adults tend to have a grayish to brownish hue.

Muggers reproduce by digging nests in the ground, usually during the dry season each year. Female Muggers, which reach sexual maturity when they are about 1.8 to 2 meters long, lay between 25 and 30 eggs as documented by Whitaker and Whitaker in 1989. Their nesting sites vary widely, with some females even choosing the entrance or inside of their burrows to lay eggs. In captivity, it has been observed that Muggers can produce two sets of eggs in a year, a phenomenon not yet seen in wild populations. The incubation period for their eggs is relatively brief, lasting between 55 and 75 days As opportunistic feeders, Muggers consume a wide range of prey. While they prefer fish, juveniles are known to eat crustaceans, insects, and small fish. Adults, on the other hand, have a diet that includes fish, amphibians, reptiles (such as snakes and potentially turtles), birds, and mammals, including monkeys. On rare occasions, large adult Muggers have been reported to prey on deer and buffalo.

 

Conservation Status

They have been given the highest standard of protection in India by keeping them in Schedule I of the wildlife protection act. The destruction of natural habitats owing to the growth of agriculture and industry, entrapment and subsequent drowning in fishing gear, and the plundering of eggs by humans, along with illegal hunting for their skin and meat and the exploitation of their body parts for medicinal purposes, are significant threats. Moreover, the frequency of human-crocodile conflicts is on the rise as human activities continue to invade the crocodiles’ natural territories.

 

Best Places to see Them

Satpura Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Panna Tiger Reserve, Corbett Tiger Reserve, Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Nagarhole Tiger Reserve and National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary. 

 

Marsh Crocodiles

 

3. Gangetic Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus

The Gharial once had a broad distribution across the major rivers of the northern Indian subcontinent, covering the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, and the Mahanadi-Brahmani-Baitarani river systems, extending through India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. It is believed they were also present in Myanmar’s Irrawady River. Presently, their primary populations are found in three tributaries of the Ganga River: the Chambal and Girwa Rivers in India, and the Rapti-Naryani River in Nepal. Gharial conservation areas in India are established in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

The Gharial stands out as one of the largest members of the crocodilian family, capable of reaching lengths up to 7 meters, and is characterized by its thick skin adorned with smooth, non-overlapping epidermal scales. Its snout is notably the most slender and elongated among crocodilians, distinguishing it further. Adult male gharials are recognized by a distinctive bulbous growth at the tip of their snout, known as the ‘ghara’. This species is the most aquatic among crocodilians, rarely straying from aquatic environments. Female gharials are known to nest by laying their eggs in the steep, sandy banks of rivers.

Gharials are exclusively found in river ecosystems characterized by deep, clear, and swiftly flowing water alongside steep, sandy banks. Adult gharials show a preference for calm, deep pools that develop at the bends and confluences of rivers, utilizing the sandy shores for sunbathing and reproductive activities. In contrast, juvenile gharials inhabit shallower, faster-moving sections of rivers. Distinct from other crocodile species, gharials primarily consume fish, capturing their prey with the specialized, pointed teeth in their elongated jaws. Juvenile gharials feed on small invertebrates, such as insects and larvae, and occasionally small frogs, while adults almost exclusively eat fish. The uniquely long and narrow snout of the gharial is designed to minimize water resistance, enabling efficient fish capture. The species’ numerous sharp teeth are ideal for gripping slippery fish. While gharials are predominantly piscivorous, they have been observed scavenging on occasion. Despite misconceptions, gharials pose no threat to humans; myths have inaccurately attributed a man-eating nature to them. Their jaw structure is not suited to consuming large mammals, making them physically incapable of attacking humans.

The exact lifespan of the Gharial is not definitively known, but it is estimated to be similar to that of other reptiles, ranging between 50 to 60 years in their natural wild habitat. Due to their crocodile-like appearance, gharials can seem intimidating to swimmers or fishermen who might encounter them.

 

Conservation Status 

Gharials are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act in India. Their habitats have been significantly impacted due to human activities; rivers within their range have been subjected to damming and diversion for irrigation, leading to the seasonal drying of rivers that used to flow year-round.

The increase in fishing activity and the use of gill nets have led to a rapid decline in the gharial population, affecting both adults and subadults through both direct mortality and depletion of their prey base. Additionally, agricultural practices such as planting gourd crops and herding livestock for drinking and grazing on the sandbanks and edges of rivers during dry months have become common, especially along the Chambal River, further degrading their habitats.

The harvesting of gharial eggs and poaching for their body parts for use in traditional medicines is an ongoing threat. This practice, which has been a tradition, continues to be reported from Nepal and, on occasion, in India, contributing to the species’ critical endangerment.

 

Best Places to see Them

National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary and Corbett Tiger reserve

 

Gangetic Gharia

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