Gangetic Dolphins: Conserving India’s National Aquatic Animal

India is one of the 12 mega biodiverse countries housing mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians.  With over hundred national parks and 500 wildlife sanctuaries, wildlife tourism in India is gearing up. We also must take pride in having participated in conservation programmes and achieving set targets four years in advance. Thanks to Project Tiger, the tiger population in India accounts for 70 percent of the world’s tiger population. India is also home to elephants, One-horned rhinos, Gir lions, and the lesser known Gangetic Dolphins.

The Gangetic Dolphins are one of the three freshwater dolphins found in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river systems in India. Although the species was known (as it is mentioned in many literature), it was not scientifically documented (given the scientific nomenclature). Its’ presence in the Hooghly river was first documented in 1801 by William Roxburgh. The dolphins are locally known as Susu, Soons, Shishuk etc. in different parts of India and were declared the National Aquatic Animal of India on October 5th, 2009.

CSP was in conversation with conservationist Dr Samir Kumar Sinha from the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). He shared some of his insights into his work with the Gangetic dolphins, the conservation practices and the research that is undertaken in India. Dr Sinha has been involved with the recovery and conservation of tiger, gharial and sarus crane. He said that currently there are only two surviving genus of the dolphins- Platanista and Inia. Platanista dolphins (known as South Asian River Dolphin) has two sub-species-  the Ganges River Dolphin and the Indus River Dolphin. Inia genus is represented by three sub-species found in South American Rivers. The Chinese River Dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) is likely extinct. Indian rivers are home to both the sub-species of Platanista and the country has been actively working towards the conservation of these freshwater dolphins.

Can you tell us about your work at the WTI?

In my professional life of over 20 years, I have worked on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems almost equally. Prior to joining WTI in 2003, I did my Master of Science in Environmental Sciences and Ph.D. on human dimensions of wildlife management. I then was associated as a researcher with the team led by Padma Shri Prof. R. K. Sinha of Patna University, who is well-known for his seminal conservation work on the Ganges River Dolphin.

In WTI, I started my careers as a Field Officer to implement conservation measures in a grossly neglected tiger reserve situated along the India-Nepal border in Bihar – Valmiki Tiger Reserve. Those day law-and-order situation in the area was very bad. In WTI, I steered projects on reducing community dependence on the tiger reserve; gharial recovery in the Gandak River, river dolphin surveys, Sarus and wetland conservation project in eastern Uttar Pradesh etc. Currently, I am Head of Conservation of WTI and broadly look after strategies and project planning of conservation project, besides supervising species recovery projects.

How did your interest in the Gangetic dolphins come about? How long have you worked with this species?

After completing my masters, I joined a project on pollution monitoring of the Ganga River in Bihar under Ganga Action Plan (Phase – II) as a project fellow. The project was under Patna University and was coordinated from the lab which was well-known for researches on Ganges River Dolphin. It gave me chance to know more about the species. Due to this, I developed interest in the species and later on joined the dolphin project in the same lab.

After joining WTI, I continued working for conservation of riverine biodiversity, especially Gharial and Ganges River Dolphin in the Gandak River in Bihar.

What is the awareness that people have regarding the dolphins and how can we improve it? 

The Ganges River Dolphin inhabits in an ecosystem which is open to all and used as a common property resource by a large number of stakeholders. In such a scenario, raising awareness level is really an arduous task. In general, awareness level of people about dolphin has improved a lot in the recent decades. But, in remote areas and across different strata, a lot needs to be done. Since government is doing extensive campaign on reducing pollution and conserving Ganga, and biodiversity is a part of it as an indicator, it would also help the dolphin. However, focus on maintaining flow in the river is little dim. Species like dolphin and gharial need water. River sand mining is another major issue which affects river ecology. Illegal mining is rampant and even the legal sand mining lacks strict monitoring and adherence to conditions stipulated in environmental clearances necessary for ecological safeguard. There is a strong need to sensitize policy makers and river resource user agencies on these issues. Another big challenge is saving dolphin habitat from toxic chemical pollutants. Residues of agrochemicals and synthetic pesticides are found in the river ecosystem and get accumulated in fishes and fish eating dolphins. Awareness on these aspects is low.

A particular review article mentioned the presence of only one dolphin sanctuary. Will one sanctuary suffice or are we working towards building more such sanctuaries?

There is one dedicated sanctuary for dolphin, but there are five protected areas in the Ganga and Brahmaputra river system within which dolphins are found. More sanctuaries would definitely help dolphins against direct threats such as poaching. But, in rivers, effects of activities even far from dolphin habitat and protected area might have adverse effects on the species. So, for conservation of aquatic biodiversity river system should be considered in totality. In the existing legal provisions management of riverine sanctuaries is quite challenging. Community Reserve, a category of protected area under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 could be more accommodating than a sanctuary in terms of conservation and meeting the need of bona fide stakeholders.

How does the Ministry help in the conservation of Gangetic dolphins?

The Government has always been supportive to dolphin conservation. In the mid-1980s, the government supported research on the species. Later, the union government declared the species as National Aquatic Animal in 2009. Last year, the present government announced ‘Project Dolphin’ which will go a long way in conservation. State governments, especially Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the Ganges Basin have taken the dolphin as their pride. Bihar is all set to start a National Dolphin Research Centre at Patna and the state supports dolphin population monitoring programmes. In Uttar Pradesh the government supports NGOs like Turtle Survival Alliance in dolphin conservation work especially rescuing dolphins stranded in canals and shallow rivers.

[caption id="attachment_10367" align="alignnone" width="1362"] Mother and Baby Dolphin. PC: Dr. Gopal Sharma/ZSI[/caption]

Can you shed light on the research that is undertaken with respect to the dolphins?

Most of the research on dolphins in the country are on employing various methods of population estimation to bring in statistical robustness in population estimates. Ecological studies of habitats, effects of developmental activities and fisheries on dolphins , testing efficacy of alternatives of dolphin oil as fish lure, toxicological examination of dolphin habitat and food, and genetic study are some of the areas of research on the species. Behavioural studies are very limited. Murky river water restricts underwater observation. Acoustic studies have been tried by a few researchers.

Acoustic equipment records high frequency echolocation clicks of dolphins and detects their real-time underwater location. Continuous monitoring using the method helps understanding annual behavioural changes with changes in river environment. The method, together with visual counts, is also used in population estimation of dolphins.

Are there differences in the conservation strategies of Indian and South American Freshwater Dolphins?

As far as efforts for conservation is concerned, I would say that it completely depends on the threats any species face in any geographical region. So, it is not comparable. Even in India, different states take different measures depending on the issues faced by the species.

Can you share with us an interesting experience with the dolphins?

Watching a dolphin surfacing out of water for inhalation is in itself an interesting experience. Sometimes they follow boats to catch fishes disturbed due to boat movement. But, the most interesting thing is to guess the place where dolphin would be surfacing out next time! It is very important if you want to photograph them.

Once we (Patna University team) were in the river Ganga at Mokama (Bihar). Our boat was anchored in the mid-channel for a break. We saw two-three dolphins chasing each other. The smooth river surface became turbulent. We had spotted a mating ritual of the Gangetic dolphins – a rare sight!

What does the future for dolphins look like?

Future of dolphin largely depends on how the country keep our rivers supportive to species like dolphin and gharial. We need to ensure sufficient and undisrupted river flow. It is well known that dams and barrages cause genetic isolation of dolphin population leading to local extermination from river stretches. We need to have strong policy in place to avert such devastating situations.

(Feature image by Sanjay Das of Aaranyak)