At least 21 endangered crocodile-like reptiles have died mysteriously in a river sanctuary in central India, raising fears that one of India's last unpolluted waterways has become toxic.
Wildlife officials discovered the bodies of one male and 20 female gharials — massive reptiles that look like their crocodile relatives, but with long slender snouts — in the Chambal River over the last three days, Sri Kishna, a government official in Uttar Pradesh state, said Wednesday.
The deaths have concerned conservationists, who believe there are only some 1,500 gharials left in the wild, many of them in a sanctuary based along the Chambal, one of the few unpolluted Indian rivers.
"The deaths of such a large number of gharials is not common. There has to be something wrong with the river water," said state Chief Wildlife Warden D.N.S. Suman.
Scientists said it appeared that either the water or fish, the gharials' main food, were contaminated as there were no signs of injuries to any of the animals.
"This could be due to high bacterial content in the Chambal River," said Alok Srivastava, of the Uttar Pradesh state Pollution Control Board. "The river water may have turned poisonous. We do not know why and how."
Tests were being carried out on the water and the dead reptiles, said B.C. Chaudhary, a senior scientist at the government-run Wildlife Institute of India.
The gharial, also known as the Indian crocodile, was on the verge of extinction in the 1970s, but a government breeding program that has released several hundred into the wild has raised their numbers.