His cargo? Baby crocodiles, dozens of them. Look closely. Can you count them all?
There are over 100 tiny tails and pointy, scaly snouts swarming over their daddy, literally covering his massive back as he swims through the river.
The river is located in the National Chambal Sanctuary in northern India. And the extraordinarily reptilian photograph was snapped by photographer and conservationist Dhritiman Mukherjee, who reportedly spends 280 days a year in the field, and has seen some extraordinary sights across northern India and beyond.
Mukherjee uses his wonderful talent as a photographer to advance the cause of wildlife conservation. This extraordinary picture of a father crocodile piggybacking his month-old children on his back highlights a critically endangered species known as the gharial crocodile—a freshwater crocodile native to northern India.
Many decades ago, there were some 20,000 specimens like this dad living in the wild. Due to habitat loss, ever since the 1930s, their numbers have dwindled to about 1,000 mature individuals today.
Gharial crocodiles live across South Asia. But two-thirds of their numbers are located in the the Uttar Pradesh sanctuary in northern India.
The incredible photograph snapped by Mukherjee was submitted to the Natural History Museum in London’s prestigious Photographer of the Year competition in 2020 (which was held online due to the lockdown). And it garnered a lot of excitement, as it is indeed a rare and significant sight.
He took the photograph from a safe distance, wisely.
Mukherjee told the BBC: “This male had mated with seven or eight females, and you can see that it was very much involved.
“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.”
This exotic crocodile differs from other croc species—such as the Nile and saltwater crocodiles found in Africa and Australia, respectively—in that the gharial has a narrow snout with a distinct bulge on the end of it.
According to Patrick Campbell, senior curator at the London Natural History Museum, there is a purpose for this peculiar adaptation. “It’s a structure that enables vocal sounds to be amplified,” he says.
And as you can see from Mukherjee’s photo, it handles its young in a peculiar manner—piggyback style; not all species of crocodile transport their young in this way.
“Other crocs carry their young about in their mouth, this very carefully, of course,” Campbell adds. “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 name “gharial” comes from the Hindi word “ghara,” which is a kind of earthenware pot. This fascinating species is one of the largest crocodiles alive today.
Their decline, starting from the 1930s, was mainly precipitated by dams and barges disrupting their river habitat, and sand extraction and boulder removal damaging their nesting environment, according to the BBC. And there is the perennial hazard of getting tangled in fishing gear.
However, both India and Pakistan have helped the species recover through captive breeding programs. And the photograph taken by Mukherjee is a sign of hope for the species’s future—showing countless young, each having potential to grow, mature, and mate, to produce countless more gharial crocodiles.
Mukherjee hopes that his passion for photography will encourage that recovery by helping people to develop an emotional connection with wildlife and conservation.
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