The elongated jaws are lined with many interlocking, razor-sharp teeth, an adaptation to their fish diet. The gharial is one of the largest of all crocodilian species, approaching the Australian saltwater crocodile, the largest crocodilian, in maximum size. Males reach 20 to 23 feet (6 to 7 m) in length.
The gharial is poorly equipped for locomotion on land. Its leg musculature is not suited to raise the body off the ground or to produce the "high-walk" gait. It is able only to push its body forward across the ground or "belly-slide." It is, however, very agile in the water. The tail is well-developed and laterally flattened, and the rear feet possess extensive webbing.
The gharial has 106 to 110 teeth in the elongated snout.
Gharials are found in the rivers of the northern India subcontinent, in Bangladesh (where they are close to being extirpated), Bhutan (possibly extirpated), India, Burma (possibly extirpated), Nepal and Pakistan (close to being extirpated). They are found within the river systems of the Brahmaputra (Bhutan and India), the Indus (Pakistan), the Ganges (India and Nepal), and the Mahanadi (India), with small populations in the Kaladan and the Irrawaddy in Burma.
They are more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle in the calmer areas of deep, fast-moving rivers. They usually leave the water only to bask and nest, both of which usually occur on sandbanks.
Fortunately, there has been some recovery, and a reasonable amount of hope lies with the conservation and management programs now in place. Full protection was granted in the 1970s in the hope of reducing poaching losses. There are now nine protected areas for this species in India alone. They are linked to both captive breeding and ranching operations where eggs collected from the wild are raised in captivity and then released back into the wild, much like some salmon and sea turtle management. The first were released in 1981. Today, more than 3,000 animals have been released through these programs. But still, the total population, wild and captive, is estimated at under 1,000 animals
The major threat at present is habitat loss due to human encroachment, and disruption of populations through fishing and hunting activities. A lack of suitable release sites has also started to become a problem for the management of the gharial. Eggs are collected for medicinal purposes, and males are still hunted for the aphrodisiac properties associated with the snout. They may also be snared in fishing nets and killed by fishermen. The decline in gharial populations have been linked to a decline in fish catches, as predatory fish, of no interest to the fishermen, form a major part of the gharial diet.
Plans for the future include surveys of areas
such as Pakistan and Burma where the status of the gharial
in the wild is unknown; it is suspected to be very poor. Management
and conservation programs cannot proceed without good data
to back them up. Existing management programs also need to
be refined, especially where river systems are shared by more
than one country.
Although poorly equipped to devour a human, such ability has nevertheless been attributed to the gharial and indeed most crocodilians. Human remains and jewelry have been found in their stomachs, serving to validate this fear. These were most likely scavenged from corpses. The Hindi funeral ritual ends with the remains of the cremated body being sent down the river. Jewelry is possibly ingested in the same way that stones would be in order to be used as gastroliths, hard objects, which presumably aid in digestion and add weight to alter buoyancy.
Gharials are named for the bulbous structure on the tip of the snout in adult males. The word gharial is derived from the Hindi word, "ghara," which means, "mud pot." It was misread by Europeans who changed the word to gavial. Thus, Gavialis gangeticus is known both as gavial and gharial.
The gharial is the most long-snouted and together with the saltwater crocodile the largest of the living crocodilians. A male gharial can reach 20 feet (6 m).
The National Zoo exhibits one female gharial; a gift from the government of Nepal.