PRAGUE (AFP) — The Prague zoo has launched a test programme to save the Indian crocodile-like gharial from the brink of extinction with a million-dollar pavilion for the animals to bask, and hopefully reproduce, in.
There are only between 150 and 200 of this species, the Gavialis gangeticus also known as the gavial, living in the wild along India's rivers today. Another 20 or so are in captivity in India, Japan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the United States, according to figures from the Prague zoo.
"All of the conservation plans launched in the world have failed up until now. The gharial is one of the most threatened species on the planet," said Petr Veselsky, in charge of reptiles at the zoo.
The new gharial pavilion -- the first such programme in Europe -- contains three males and four females from a park in Madras in southern India.
They are distinguishable from crocodiles by their especially long and thin jaws, which gives a terrifying appearance despite the fact they are fish-eating and present no threat to humans.
"The final goal is to see these gharials reproduce so as to send their young to other zoos or even to release them into their country of origin," said Veselsky. He predicts it will take another 10 years for this to take place, the time for the tank's new inhabitants to reach sexual maturity.
Previously abundant along the banks of rivers in India, Myanmar and Nepal, gharials have paid a heavy price for the degradation of their habitat due to river pollution, agriculture and increased river traffic.
"Last year, we found hundreds of dead gharials near the Indian Chambal river. An investigation led by a group of international veterinarians was able to show that they had fed themselves on fish contaminated with toxins," said Veselsky.
Along with his colleagues, he designed the new bamboo-decorated pavilion with deep waters, sandy beaches, waterfalls, and quiet hideaways. A powerful infrared lamp heats a little island lying only centimetres away from the massive window separating the creatures from the public.
"That's their favourite spot, they love to heat themselves there like in sunshine. They bask there an hour, their skin heats up to 50 degrees and then they go into the water to cool down. It's exactly what they need,"
The Prague zoo shelters 4,600 animals representing some 636 different species it hopes to see grow and multiply. The gharials are not the zoo's first conservation project: its experts played a key role in the survival of the wild Przewalski horse.
The zoo, a modest 111 acres (44 hectares), has been rated by Forbes Magazine as the seventh best zoo in the world, according to the Prague city website.
Much credit is said to go to the zoo's dynamic young director, Petr Fejk, the first non-zoologist to head the establishment who is credited since his appointment in 1997 with boosting visitors from 400,000 to 1.3 million last year.
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