Wildlife Photographer of the Year: How many crocodiles can you see?

Jonathan Amos

BBC – How many crocodiles can you count in this picture? One hundred, maybe?

You’re forgiven for doing a double-take because you don’t immediately register that this male gharial croc’s back is entirely covered by its young.

The image was captured by expert photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee. His shot, snapped in India’s National Chambal Sanctuary, is highly commended in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) competition.

Every one of these youngsters needs to survive into adulthood and to breed.

The freshwater gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is critically endangered. Where once it could have numbered over 20,000 animals across South Asia, the species is now down to perhaps less than 1,000 mature individuals – and three-quarters of these are concentrated in the Uttar Pradesh sanctuary.

“This male mated with seven or eight females, and you can see that it was very much involved,” explained Dhritiman. “Normally the gharial is quite a shy crocodile compared with the saltwater and marsh crocs. But this one was very protective and if I got too close, it would charge me. It could be very aggressive,” he told BBC News.

Hatchlings cling to a male gharial’s back in India’s National Chambal Sanctuary. PHOTO: DHRITIMAN MUKHERJEE

The male gharial sports a fabulous bulge on the end of its snout that is reminiscent of a round earthenware pot, or ghara in the Hindi language.

“It’s a structure that enables vocal sounds to be amplified,” said Patrick Campbell, the senior curator of reptiles at London’s Natural History Museum (NHM), which runs the prestigious WPY competition.

“Other crocs carry their young about in their mouths. Very carefully, of course! But for the gharial, the unusual morphology of the snout means this is not possible. So the young have to cling to the head and back for that close connection and protection.”

The gharial’s decline is a familiar story of habitat loss.

This has been driven principally by dams and barrages that disrupted river flows. Sand extraction and boulder removal restricted nesting opportunities. And then there’s the perennial problem of animals getting caught up in fishing gear.

“Rear and release” programmes appear to have at least stopped this species going over the edge. But a big effort is now needed if this extraordinary animal is to have a long-term future.

Dhritiman hopes he can help spur that endeavour by linking the emotion displayed in his images to the science that’s required for successful conservation.

Otherwise, the only place you’ll be able to see the gharial will be in museums – as the taxidermy specimens, like those held by the NHM.

Dhritiman’s picture on left is highly commended in the Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles category of WPY.

The winners of the 2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition – its grand prizes and category winners – will be announced on October 13.

However, because of the global impact of Covid-19, the awards ceremony will be held online. This will be hosted by the well-known TV presenters Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin.