L.A. Zoo Becomes One of Nine Zoos in the Western Hemisphere to House Gharials Flown in from India

CONTACT: April Spurlock

May 3, 2017

Los Angeles Zoo Gharial by Tad Motoyama

The Los Angeles Zoo is excited to welcome a group of critically endangered gharials, once common to the Himalayan-fed rivers of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The gharials, one male and three females, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Thursday, April 20 in six-foot-long wooden cargo crates and were driven to the L.A. Zoo in our NBC Universal animal transport van. A team of Animal Care and Animal Health staff were waiting to give the animals their official exam and introduce them to their newly-renovated habitat near the Living Amphibians, Invertebrates, and Reptiles (LAIR) building.

These gharials are a part of a larger group hatched at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust & Centre For Herpetology in Madras, India which runs the world’s most successful breeding program for gharials. A majority of the gharials in the program are meant for release into the wild, but a small percentage are sent out to AZA-accredited Zoos in North America to create an insurance population for this species that nearly went extinct in the 1970s due to human encroachment and disruption of populations through fishing and hunting activities. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) shipped the four gharials to New York, where the Bronx Zoo played an essential part in the intricate process to acquire the gharials from India before they could finally be sent to Los Angeles.

“Receiving these gharials hatched in India was a very long and tedious journey, but we’re very honored to be one of nine Zoos in North America that are a part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for gharials,” said Ian Recchio, Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo. “We haven’t quite cracked the code on breeding this species of crocodile in North America. The first egg to ever hatch in the Western Hemisphere just happened last year. But, it is our goal to try and breed these gharials when they reach sexual maturity in the next five to seven years.”

While the staff at LAIR awaited the gharials arrival, they were busy redesigning a 50-year-old habitat, one of the Zoo’s original exhibits, into a state-of-the-art home for the new group. The transformation to the previously empty habitat included resurfacing the pool, adding a heater to the pool along with filtration and ultraviolet sterilization for extra clean water, planting old world plants, pruning preexisting palm trees, and trucking in several tons of beach sand.

“You might not realize it, but we were very strategic in how we built the habitat for these gharials,” said Recchio. “Even the smallest detail such as the beach sand has a purpose. In that instance, we wanted to replicate the raised beaches of the Chambal and Ganges Rivers where the Indian gharials like to nest. It’s important if we intend to breed these animals that we make them feel like they can come out of a river above where the water would potentially flood in the wild and build their nests.”

This very unique species of crocodile has an exaggerated, long snout filled with around 110 sharp, needle-like teeth made for cutting through the water and catching fish. Gharials can grow up to 20 feet long making it one of the largest of all crocodilian species. Being exclusively fish eaters, gharials coexist well with other species such as turtles and birds in the same space. The gharial group at L.A. Zoo are sharing their habitat with the critically endangered painted river terrapins and the fly river turtle.

The gharials spent the first few days at the bottom of their pool getting to know their new habitat, but they can now be seen above the water enjoying the warmer weather in their habitat daily. “Sunlight is extremely important to this species of crocodile, so Los Angeles is a very geographically desirable place,” said Recchio. “If we slightly warm the gharial’s water, we can keep these crocodiles outside 365 days a year. I foresee guests walking by to check out this unique species and spotting them basking on a rock under the sun. You might even see a river terrapin lying on top of a gharial basking in the sun, mistaking them for a log.”

Working with this species represents the L.A. Zoo’s continued commitment to conservation efforts and making a difference in the wild.

About the Los Angeles Zoo:
Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the landmark Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, drawing nearly 1.8 million visitors each year, is home to a diverse collection of 1,100 animals representing 250 different species, many of which are rare or endangered. Its lush grounds on 113 acres feature a botanical collection comprising over 800 different plant species with approximately 7,000 individual plants. The Zoo is located in Griffith Park at the junction of the Ventura (134) and Golden State (5) freeways. Admission is $20 for adults and $15 for children ages 2 to 12. The Zoo is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For information, call (323) 644-4200 or visit the L.A. Zoo Web site at www.lazoo.org.