Saving dolphins in the sacred Ganges

Posted: 15 March 2005

Author: Brian Thomson

The river dolphins of India's sacred Ganges River have been written into Hindu religious tracts dating back thousands of years. So revered, the Ganges River dolphin was one of the world's first protected species, given special status under the reign of Emperor Ashoka, one of India's most famous rulers in the third century BC.

Today, the Ganges River dolphin (Platanista gangetica) is protected once again under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (and internationally under the CITES convention). But, like other river dolphin species around the world, it continues to remain under threat from pollution, fishing and irresponsible river basin management.

In one stretch of the Ganges, however, all is not lost as the number of river dolphins has nearly doubled from 22 to 42 over the past decade. This success story is due in no small part to the contagious enthusiasm of Dr Sandeep Behera, WWF-India's Freshwater Programme Co-ordinator. Known as the 'Dolphin Man' by local villagers and colleagues, Sandeep has worked tirelessly for the past 13 years along the Ganges in an effort to save this endangered species. In particular, his work has focused on a 164km stretch of river from Bijnor to Narora, about 200km south-east of the capital, New Delhi, reachable only by travelling along some of the country's most bone-crunching and bumpiest roads.

"I first saw a river dolphin some fourteen years ago," said Sandeep, who was involved at the time on another research project in the Upper Ganges. "When I first saw one I thought it was the most beautiful of animals, jumping up and out from the river. It was breathtaking." Swimming blindly

Taking to the Ganges' murky waters - with Sandeep as a guide - sightings of these illusive creatures are not as rare as one first expects. Meandering around the many sandbanks that fill this stretch of river one soon gets a glimpse of these silvery-grey dolphins, with their trademark long narrow beaks, arching their way through the mud-coloured waters.

Surfacing every three minutes or so for air, these freshwater dolphins appear for just a few seconds, but their brief impact is magical. Local people call the dolphins susu, a name that mimics the noise they make when surfacing for air. Cutting the engines of the boat, it's not long before a female dolphin breaks the surface just metres away - close enough that the distinct susu noise is distinctly heard.

The Ganges River dolphin can grow as large as 2.7m in length and weighs up to 90kg. In addition to the uniqueness of their long beaks, these dolphins are blind, having adapted to the silt-filled waters of the Ganges where underwater vision is practically useless. Instead, they navigate and hunt for small fish with a highly developed echolocation system - an innate system that enables them to locate and discriminate objects by reflecting sound. Unfortunately, their blindness occasionally leads to tragic consequences as they easily get entangled in fishing nets, an increasing threat to the dolphin's survival. "The worst threat is pollution, the second is fishing activity and the third is habitat degradation," explained Sandeep. "In this particular stretch, however, we have overcome the threat of fishing activity as the local government has banned commercial fishing and sand-mining activities along the banks."

Dense population

Before Sandeep started his work there were no proper scientific records on the number of Ganges river dolphins. Today, he can report that there are 42 dolphins living along the particular stretch of river he works on, up from just 22 in the early 1990s. As for the rest the entire Ganges and Brahmaputra river systems in India, there are estimates of 1,500 to 1,800 dolphins left. Over the past 13 years Sandeep has surveyed just about every part of the Ganges, flagging the dolphin's threats along the way.

"I think I became so involved with these creatures because no one else was looking after them," he said. "Now we realize that like canaries sent down mines to warn of toxic gases the dolphins in our rivers can also warn of polluted water." The Ganges drainage area is one of the most densely populated in the world, being home to roughly one tenth of the world's human population, and as such suffers enormous demand for its resources. A major threat to the Ganges river dolphin has been the extensive damming of rivers for irrigation and electricity generation, which isolates populations and prevents seasonal migration. Other threats include chemical pollution, boat traffic, hunting and human disturbance. This species has also been hunted at times for oil, fish bait and food by local people. Wealth of wildlife

As our low-lying boat makes its way gently down stream one can't help but be impressed by the wealth of wildlife in this stretch of the Ganges. There are over a hundred species of waterfowl on the islands and the grassy areas that lie along the banks of the river, as well as 11 species of turtle and two species of crocodile. One also finds antelope and deer.

From Bijnor to Narora one can also see that the local people are doing well. Roads and houses have been built and sewage treated. Oversized billboards urging villagers to protect the environment by not using soap or detergent when washing in the river, and to make every effort possible to conserve water and wildlife, are evidence that residents along the shoreline are taking a keen interest in looking after their own environment. Sandeep's co-enthusiast, Parikshit Gautam, head of WWF-India's Freshwater and Wetlands Programme, was keen to point out that normally one only finds these species where the water is clean. Looking towards the village of Farida, which nestles on the banks of the Ganges at the northern boundary of the designated area where WWF is working, he underlined how much is being done with these communities to reinforce the link between a healthy environment for dolphins and humans alike. "These villages directly contribute to the conservation of the river dolphin, which leads to the overall conservation of this particular river system," explained Gautam. "The people here are no longer using polluting fertilizers, but are instead using more natural fertilizers like cow manure. They are also upgrading their sanitation facilities with the help of government grants."

Tourist potential

At first, the locals were not so supportive, fearing that environmentalists would destroy their livelihoods. But Sandeep's charm and persistence soon made it clear that a healthy environment for the river dolphins wouldn't threaten the local economy.

"These people were worried about their economic interests," added Sandeep. "In the beginning there was a lot of opposition to what I was doing, nowadays about 90 per cent are with me and about 10 per cent are still to be convinced."

Sitting next to Sandeep is one of his former opponents, Radhey Shyam, a local strongman-turned-conservationist. He first approached Sandeep a number of years ago, threatening him for trying to stop some fishing activities along the river that were deemed unsustainable. Now, he keeps a watchful eye for poachers and takes great pride in reciting to visitors the scientific names of various bird and fish species one finds here.

Tourism is of course an option for increasing local incomes and heightening awareness of the river dolphin's precarious situation. With that in mind, Sandeep looks forward to bringing small numbers of eco-friendly tourists to the Ganges for a day of dolphin spotting. "There aren't many hotels in Narora," Sandeep added. "But the last thing the dolphins need is large-scale tourism. We are trying to ensure that this area will not become over-developed, but at the same time would like people to have the opportunity to observe such a unique creature." Religious leaders The whole experience of gently gliding along the Ganges and glimpsing these magnificent animals is truly enchanting. Drifting past a number of Hindu temples the religious significance of this river adds to the mysterious otherworldliness of the voyage. "Along this stretch of the river we have worked closely with religious leaders who in turn work with us as a partner to motivate the local people, reinforcing the holy nature of the Ganges in our religion," explained Sandeep. "The dolphins are part of this holy nature." As the voyage of dolphin discovery makes its final port of call, the twinkling lights of Narora is framed against a dam that dissects the Ganges from one bank to the other to divert water for irrigation and a power plant. This marks the end of the dolphin's habitat, with the barrage effectively blocking these mariners of the river from moving further downstream. Even if they could negotiate the concrete dam the water levels on the other side are so low outside of the wet season that the habitat there would be unsuitable for their survival.

"We may be doing better with dolphin numbers along this particular stretch of the Ganges, but after Narora there are no dolphins downstream for 300km because it's so polluted," Sandeep said. The dam, no doubt, represents the border between a Ganges that is coming back to life and a river that is slowly dying through pollution, overfishing and poor management of this precious resource. One wonders about the simple beauty of the day that has unfolded, with every glimpse of these divine creatures gliding through the water a treasured memory. Add to the experience the renewal of the environment that goes hand-in-hand with their survival and what you're left with at the end echoes the words of Sandeep the Dolphin Man: "If we can save the dolphin we can save the river, not just for conservationists but for everyone who needs it."

Brian Thomson is a Press Officer at WWF International

Footnote:

The Ganges River dolphin inhabits the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Karnaphuli-Sangu river systems of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. This vast area has been altered by the construction of more than 50 dams and other irrigation-related projects, with dire consequences for the river dolphins. Alterations to the river due to barrages are also separating populations. A recent survey conducted by WWF-India and its partners in the entire distribution range in the Ganges and Brahmaputra river system, which is around 6,000km long, identified fewer than 2,000 individuals in India. WWF aims to reduce or eliminate the threats caused by fisheries bycatch and habitat degradation by 2012.

The Ganges River dolphin is among the four "obligate" freshwater dolphins found in the world. The other three are the baiji found in the Yangtze River in China, the bhulan of the Indus River in Pakistan, and the boto of the Amazon River in Latin America. Although there are several species of marine dolphins whose ranges include some freshwater habitats, these four species live only in rivers and lakes.

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