The Indian gharial is among one of the largest crocodilian species, with males able to reach lengths of just under twenty feet and weigh nearly four hundred pounds. Upon hatching, however, the reptile measures around twelve to fifteen inches long and weighs just one quarter of a pound. Indian gharials generally begin to display courtship behaviors in December, mate in January and February, and lay their eggs in March and April. In captive environments, these animals have proven difficult to breed in the past, the only successes coming from programs in the animals’ native homeland of India and Nepal.
That changed on June 12, 2016 with the hatching of an Indian gharial at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Zoos Are Important is thrilled that director and general manager of the zoo, John Brueggen, agreed to this written interview to give us more insight into this milestone for the species.
Zoos Are Important: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your time and answer some questions about your conservation success!
Let’s get to know you first. What is your personal history with the zoological field and, specifically, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm?
John Brueggen: I told my parents I was going to be a zoo keeper at age 5. I have worked at Lowry Park Zoo, Bush Gardens, Walt Disney World, and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. I came to the Alligator Farm over 16 years ago as the General Curator, and was promoted to Director about 10 years ago.
ZAI: What is the St Augustine Alligator Farm’s history with the Indian gharial species?
JB: In 1993, our zoo became the only zoo in the world to house every species of crocodilian in the world. We opened an attraction called “Land of Crocodiles”, and the gharials display was one of the new exhibits. Since that time we have been growing up our one male and two females in an attempt to reproduce them. We worked with Purina’s zoo diet team to create a special diet for the gharial, whom normally only consume fish in the wild. In 2011, one of our female gharial laid eggs but she just dropped them in the water. We didn’t even know she was pregnant and she was letting us know that there was not a suitable place to lay her eggs. In 2012 we built a large sand bank in the exhibit, similar to the sandbanks in India where female gharial are known to lay their eggs. In 2012 and 2014 one of our female gharial laid eggs in the sandbank, but only a few of the eggs were fertile and though one egg grew to a full term hatchling it did not survive to hatch out of the egg. In 2013 we traveled to India to meet with a the [sic] team at the Madras Crocodile Bank, as they have experience breeding gharial in India. We picked their brains about water temperatures, diet, and incubation techniques. When we returned home we invested more energy in heating water during the winter and making sure our sand mound was at the right height and angle. Then this year, on April 7 we collected some fertile eggs from the nesting sandbank. We carefully transferred them to our incubators because the sandbank was not warm enough for embryo development. Finally, on June 12, 2016 a beautiful little snout poked its way out of one of the eggs.
ZAI: Can you explain what a Species Survival Plan (SSP) is and how it helps with species conservation?
JB: The Species Survival Plan (SSP) is a program in which zoos can work together to help save a species. No one zoo can do all the conservation work for a singe [sic] species. By working together, we create a large breeding population of animals across North America. For example, our zoo is not capable of housing and breeding all the Chinese Alligators that are in captivity, but by working with all the zoos that have Chinese Alligators, we can work together to have a large breeding group. There is a computerized studbook that makes recommendations each year as to which individual should breed with which other to maintain the best genetic diversity for the next 100 years. That may mean that a female from our facility has to be moved to breed with a male in Toledo, but by making these adjustments and pairings each year we create a genetically diverse population. We have been so successful at this that we have even been able to take some of our Chinese Alligator offspring and release them into protected habitat in China.
ZAI: Can you explain the process your team has gone through in the recent weeks from the female Indian gharial laying the eggs to the first hatch?
JB: A few years ago we received a very generous donation of some very precise incubators. When we found the eggs in our nesting beach, we very carefully transferred the eggs to these new incubators. Crocodilian eggs have to be kept at the perfect temperature and humidity, and these incubators did it perfectly! Just about 60 days later, out popped a baby gharial.
ZAI: Why is this hatchling in particular so important and what does this successful breeding mean for the species going forward?
JB: We are hoping that this is just the first of may [sic] breedings over the next ten years. We are the first zoo in the western hemisphere to crack the code, but we hope that our zoo partners in other AZA zoos with adult gharial will soon follow suit. Our little guy will need a girl to breed with in the future! This breeding is just the first step in an ongoing conservation puzzle. If we are able to breed enough gharial in the future to release them back into the wild, there needs to be a suitable place in the wild to release them. Captive breeding is only a small piece of the overall conservation of this species. What this little hatchling represents is hope. More people now know about an animal called a gharial because of this one little hatchling. Before reading this story, many people had never even heard of this animal.
ZAI: Being that the Indian gharial is critically endangered, is there hope of reintroducing some of these captive-bred individuals into their native habitat?
JB: These animals currently have some head start programs in their native countries. Just like we do with sea turtles, there are groups that hatch gharial, raise them until they are a size that they might survive, and then release them into the wild. The real issues have to do with whether or not there will continue to be enough pristine habitat left for them to survive. Sand is a valuable commodity in India and people are literally stealing the gharials’ nesting sandbanks.
ZAI: Do guests have the ability to view your new addition?
JB: We will evaluate the hatchling over the next few weeks to determine how it is doing, make sure it is eating, etc. Then we can make a decision about displaying him.
ZAI: What can we, as the general public, do to help the Indian gharial going forward?
Support your local zoo and all the great work they do!
There is a lot of information about gharial at: http://www.gharialconservationalliance.org/
Financial contributions can be made at: http://www.gharialconservationalliance.org/?page_id=22
ZAI: Thank you again for your time! Please extend our congratulations to your team!
JB: Thank you!