More than a decade after Gangetic dolphins (platanista gangetica) was granted the status of national aquatic animal, the rare mammal species continue to face multiple threats impacting their habitat and population in Ganga rivers. Just in past one year, the year when the Prime Minister of India declared the Project Dolphin, six dolphins were found dead for unnatural reasons in three states along the Ganga. In addition to Gangetic, river dolphin were killed in three other states.
Uttar Pradesh, December 2020 The visuals of Gangetic dolphin being beaten to death in one of minor branch of Sharda canal in Pratapgarh at the end of first week of 2021 created anger among various groups on social media, demanding action against the involved.
The incident took place on Dec 31, 2020 and the backlash[i] started only after the video of the violent attack surfaced and went viral on social media. The reactions forced the local police to take action which has reportedly arrested three of the involved. There have been reasons for the fatality which are not known to many and need further inquiries.
The initial reports in local Hindi media mentioned that the water supply in minor branch of Sharda canal passing through Kothria village of Nawabganj was stopped[ii] on Dec 31 resulting in low water level in the canal. A stranded dolphin was seen in the canal next morning creating curiosity and fear among villagers who gathered at the site in large numbers.
Some villagers identified it as dolphin while others felt it to be dangerous for humans, generating safety concerns. Some of them resorted to attack the Dolphin with axes, sticks and stones. Due to low water level in the canal, the dolphin could not escape the brutal assault, ultimately leading to its death. The low water level also made it more visible to local people drawing the crowd closer to the mammal.
Another Hindi report stated that the dolphin landed[iii] in the Adalabad minor originating from the Sharda canal near Sarpatha village where it was beaten to death. It suggested that the dolphin reached in the minor with strong currents and got trapped there when the discharge was stopped.
A third report said that after uproar at local level, the administration arrived & identified[iv] the about 8 feet long, 150 kg carcass as the Ganges dolphin. The post-mortem found it died following stabbing with sharp weapons. The dead body was later buried in a pit by the canal.
The surfacing of a video of the incident invoked criticism at national level. In the The Indian Express report, the DFO Varun Singh said “…This is for the first time[v] that a dolphin has been found in the canal here. While they usually move in deep waters, we do not know how it entered the canal. We have also searched for other dolphins in the Sharda canal, but could not find any.” He added, “We are investigating the entire incident and will soon send a report to the government to ensure that such an incident is not repeated.”
As per the latest update the mammal was pregnant[vi]. The report claimed that the fact was not disclosed by forest department and a village headman had a photographic evidence of the matter when the post mortem was conducted.
Most of the local villagers and media were not aware that it was a friendly mammal and not some alien, harmful fish. This showed lack of awareness among them. Had they knew this fact, the tragedy could have been avoided. Secondly the operation of canal has its share of blame and the authorities must make the canal operators a part of dolphin conservation.
It is worth to mention that this is not first time the mammal has stranded into canals in Uttar Pradesh. It has been happening frequently. In one such incident on Oct. 21, 2020 too a Gangetic dolphin had stranded into Sharda canal in Barabanki district. It was later rescued and released back in Ghaghara river by Turtle Survival Alliance.
Oct 2020 The Hindustan Times reported about death of two dolphins[vii] in a short span of 5 days in upper segment of Ganga which is part of Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary (HWS) and also under Ramsar International Wetlands site. First a young dolphin was found dead near Narora village on October 9, 2020 followed by death of another dolphin in the lower Ganga canal near Ramghat bridge on October 13, both sites in Bulandshahr district.
A senior forest official, who did not wish to be named, said, “Prima facie, illegal fishing in the river seems to be the reason for the death of these two dolphins.” It also includes statement from Dr Sandeep Behera, consultant of NMCG (National Mission for Clean Ganga), saying the stretch was declared a Ramsar site because of these dolphins & the community’s participation in their conservation but the officials could not implement a management plan for the site in past 15 years.
Freshwater dolphins are highly endangered and found in just four river systems of the world including the Ganges. In upper Ganga basin they are called ‘Soos’ because of the whistling sounds they make. These dolphins are blind by birth, can differentiate between light and dark only and swim using a sonar system. Synthetic net, pesticides used in riverbank farming, poaching for its blubber, pollution in river and sand bars are some of the threats faced by the river dolphins. The river dolphins are at the top of the food web, protection of the species and its habitat is essential for overall health of rivers.
January 2020 The Times of India report dated Jan 17, mentions about finding of a carcass[ix] of an adult freshwater dolphin with deep harpoon wounds on the banks of the Ganga near Jalalpur Jora village inside protected HWS days before state’s chief minister scheduled visit.
The post-mortem examination report confirmed the death was caused due to the harpoon attack on the spine, killing it instantly. The incident also raised questions on the security of the national aquatic animal in the region. The carcass was few days old. The forest officials also stated that the HWS is spread in 5 districts and it was unknown where the mammal was killed.
Dolphins breeding cycle is low and it is essential to protect their numbers and habitat. After the incident the forest department said it launched awareness drive among villagers and action against illegal fishing in the area.
Bihar, Dec 2020 Down To Earth reports that on December 10, a dolphin carcass[x] was found floating at Umanath Ghat in the Barh subdivision of Patna by fishermen. However it was disposed in the Ganga without ascertaining the reason of death. The local people had informed the SDO (Sub-Divisional Officer) and the police in timely manner, but when no one from these departments reached the spot, some people threw the carcass into the river.
Gopal Sharma, regional head of the ZSI (Zoological Society of India) Bihar and Jharkhand noted that this was the first reported death of a Gangetic dolphin this year (in Bihar). Dolphins are frequently targeted by poachers for their skin and oil and also because of the high demand for their meat and fat. Sharma said prima facie it appeared that the dolphin had died three days prior to being found. But the cause of its death was not clear. There was a mark of injury on the neck. Dolphins are usually injured by motor boats. They are also injured and die due to the fishing nets.
West Bengal, May 2020 In May 2020, incident of a young Gangetic dolphin being tortured to death[xi] by a bunch of young men came to light after the images were uploaded on social media by one of them which went viral. Another video showed the mammal being released into the river in a bloodied state.
Though the exact location of the incident was not known but it was expected to be on the banks of Hooghly somewhere between Kolkata and Burdwan. After seeing the video, noted environmentalist Biswajit Roychowdhury’s organisation complained about it to the Principal CCF and the matter was under investigation. He added that the dolphin in the video is an infant, probably a few weeks old. Asserting that dolphin rescue is an extremely delicate job, Biswajit added, “The mammals have very sensitive skin and the way it has been handled it is likely to be dead despite being released in water.”
July 2020 In one more incident the pictures of kids in Howrah posing with the carcass of a Gangetic dolphin like a trophy were shared on social media groups. The dolphin’s snout was entangled in a fishing net.
Fishermen found the dead dolphin[xii], an adult female along a riverbank in Shyampur II Block, over 60 km from Calcutta, on July 5 morning. The place is near Gadiara which stands at the confluence of the Hooghly, the Rupnarayan and the Damodar and known for sightings of dolphins said Saswati Sen, the state director of WWF India.
The forest department took the body away later. Dolphins need to rise to the surface to get enough air to breathe. But once trapped in nets, they cannot rise to breathe. Dolphins are clever but fishing nets, mostly made of nylon, are very thin and the dolphins’ sonar senses miss them, the official said.
Gangetic dolphins face a serious threat in Bengal from large-scale discharge of municipal waste, siltation and the countless brick kilns that have sprung up along riverbanks and river traffic. Conservationists said most people who lived along rivers were unaware of its riches.
A veteran conservationist Ravindra Kumar Sinha VC of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University in Katra said the key to any conservation effort was the involvement of local people and recommended financial incentives for fishermen if they let go dolphins trapped in nets. Sinha is a Padma Shri award recipient for his work on the conservation of Gangetic dolphins.
Assam, May 2020 The Baghjan oil well disaster in Tinsukia leaked[xiii] toxic natural gas into its surroundings, contaminated the water bodies & streams that flow into the Maguri-Motapung Beel, a large wetland and the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Locals reported that the flora and fauna were severely impacted. Parts of Maguri Beel was covered in oil.
One of the heart breaking images of the disaster is that of an endangered Gangetic dolphin’s carcass, with its skin peeled off[xiv], possibly due to the oil and gas leakage reports Conservation India. Photographs of the dead river dolphin and fish floating in the oil spill were shared extensively on social media.
Odisha, Nov 2020 A Gangetic dolphin was caught in the net[xv] of a fisherman in Govari river near Kaikula village on Nov 23 morning and died within a few minutes. Bikash Ranjan Dash, DFO of Bhitarkanika National Park said the dolphin was a young female. This was the first sighting of the endangered species in Govari river. Back in 1978, the carcass of a Gangetic dolphin was found in a water body of the park.
In 2005, forest officials had located another dolphin in Budhabalanga river in Balasore district. Officials from Chilika Development Authority, Forest dept and a few scientists from Japan had conducted a study on the mammal, which died in 2006, said wildlife scientist Sudhakar Kar.
Summary table of Gangetic Dolphin deaths
|1||31.12.20||Adalabad minor, Sharda canal near Kothariya village, Nawabganj PS, Pratapgarh, UP||Beaten to death by crowd||~2.40 long, 150 kg adult female, Possibly pregnant Stranded in canal and got trapped after decline in water discharge||25°53’19.69″N 81°21’47.81″E|
|2||10.12.20||Umanath Ghat, Barh, Patna, Bihar||Not confirmed The site is between Patna and Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary||Carcass disposed off without post mortem||25°28’43.89″N 85°42’13.15″E|
|3||23.11.20||Gobari river near Kainkula village, Sadar tehsil, Kendrapara, Odisha||Trapped in fishing net||Young female||20°30’1.38″N 86°32’50.46″E|
|4||13.10.20||Lower Ganga canal near Ramghat bridge, Narora, Hastinapur WS Bulandshahr UP||Forest officials say illegal fishing but no confirmed report available.||The site is about 7 km d/s Narora barrage||28° 8’43.56″N 78°25’41.86″E|
|5||09.10.20||Narora Village, Hastinapur WS, Bulandshahr UP||Forest officials say illegal fishing but no confirmed report available.||~1.41 m long, 41 kg weight 2 years old young female||28°12’1.63″N 78°23’20.10″E|
|6||05.07.20||Near Gadiara (confluence of 3 rivers), Shyampur II Block, Howrah, W Bengal||Trapped in fishing net||Female adult||22°13’30.25″N 88° 2’33.76″E|
|7||~29.05.20||Baghjan, Tinsukia, Dibru-Saikhowa NP Park Assam||Contamination of water bodies, habitat||Baghjan Oil Blowout Disaster||27°34’29.57″N 95°22’4.69″E|
|8||~08.05.20||Possibly Hooghly riverbank in Nadia, W Bengal||Tortured by village youths||Possibly one week old infant.||23°13’52.42″N 88°22’23.77″E 23° 0’35.31″N 88°26’19.14″E|
|9||~15.01.20||Jalapur Jora village, Hastinapur WS, Meerut||Spine injures due to attack by harpoon||Adult||29° 3’13.21″N 78° 4’9.57″E|
Other Relevant Developments
Project Dolphin The PM had on the 74th Independence Day announced[xvi] ‘Project Dolphin’, saying it will give a boost to biodiversity and create employment opportunities. The Project Dolphin will involve conservation of Dolphins and the aquatic habitat through use of modern technology especially in enumeration and anti-poaching activities. The project will engage the fishermen and other river/ ocean dependent population and will strive for improving the livelihood of the local communities.
Gangetic dolphins were declared[xvii] national aquatic species in 2010. The river dolphin is a species of freshwater, primarily found in the Ganga & Brahmaputra rivers and their tributaries in India, Bangladesh & Nepal. In India, these dolphins are sighted in long deep river reaches in Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
Survey after 5 years The joint survey of WWF India and Forest Dept in Dec 2020 has spotted[xviii] 9 Gangetic dolphins in 130 km long stretch of Budaun after a hiatus of 5 years. The last survey in 2015-16 recorded the species at four locations.
Shahnawaj Khan, project officer of biodiversity team, WWF said that low level of river water and encroachment of floodplains play a threat to dolphins. Dolphins cannot breathe inside the water and must come to the surface from time to time to breathe. After sightings of dolphins the fishermen were asked not to harm them.
Illegal Fishing The forest officials again said that the illegal fishing[xix] along 40-km river stretch of Ganga between Balawali and Ganj area in Bijnor is threatening the biodiversity of the region and derailing the attempts to save the endangered species. During the recent counting of dolphins in the Ganga stretch, WWF team seized 5 fishing nests in Bijnor.
“The illegal fishing is eating up the main food source of dolphin, gharial as well as of the endangered turtles,” a forest official said. Officials said that dolphins are generally not killed for meat, but the possibility of their getting trapped in these nets is high. This year, 41 freshwater Gangetic dolphins were spotted in the region, 6 more than last year’s tally of 35.
Historical context The author Akashdeep Ashok in his article shares that Gangetic dolphin was first scientifically documented[xx] by William Roxburgh, then superintendent of Calcutta Botanical Garden, in 1801. Called the ‘Ganga puputaka’ in Sanskrit, the dolphin is associated with the deity Ganga in Brahmavaivarta Purana. Even in the Rig Veda, Jahnavi and river dolphin occur in two adjacent verses. In the 3rd century BC, emperor Ashok accorded the Gangetic dolphin a special status in his fifth pillar edict and barred its killing or hunting. In Baburnama, which was published in 1598, the Gangetic dolphin has been referred to as Khokk Aabi (Persian for water hog).
Numbers down in Chambal There are just 68 dolphins left[xxi] in 435 km long Chambal river sanctuary which passes through three states (MP, UP and Rajasthan), according to the latest census report of Madhya Pradesh forest department released in last week of June 2020. According to the census report, dolphins’ number in Chambal river has been reduced by 13% in 4 years. The decreasing trend is continuing from 2016 when there were 78 dolphins.
In 2006, the Central Empowered Committee ordered a ban on mining in the sanctuary area to save the flora and fauna of the river. “But illegal sand mining and consumption of water is so rampant that it is putting the whole ecosystem of the river in danger,” said Jyoti Dandotiya, chief scientist of the Deori Gharial Eco-park in Chambal sanctuary, Morena. “The dolphins were spotted for the first time in 1985 in Chambal river near Etawah. That time, the number was more than 110 but poaching reduced the number.”
The WII (Wildlife Institute of India), Dehradun, scientist Qamar Qureshi, who is doing a research on dolphins in Chambal, said, “The maximum carrying capacity of dolphins in Chambal is 125. It requires at least 3 metre depth and 266.42-289.67 m3 per sec flow of water for sustainable habitat. But perennial problems like illegal extraction of sand from the river bed and water withdrawal projects in Morena, Dholpur and Kota are disturbing the whole ecosystem of the river and decreasing the water level and flow. It needs to be addressed properly to save the dolphins as well as ghariyal”.
Waterways need assessment The stretch of Ganga lying between Allahabad and Haldia is part part of National Waterways-I. This stretch also has Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary and Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary which are being threatened[xxii] by the project. While government has planned to de-notify the turtle sanctuary; experts are citing the project would adversely affect the Gangetic dolphin and it needs to be studied further to understand the entire impacts before marching ahead writes Nimesh Ved for The Third Pole.
Samir Sinha, head of conservation at Wildlife Trust of India, who has studied Bihar’s wildlife for years, added, “For conservation of a species like the dolphin, the stretch of the Vikramshila Sanctuary is not sufficient. Other stretches of the river with high population density of the Dolphins also warrant conservation attention.”
A recent study on the impact of waterway construction paints a gloomy picture for the dolphin’s future. The authors warn that “an inevitable consequence is the massive increase in vessel traffic and river pollution, which will have adverse impact on the Gangetic dolphin population” adding, “It is expected that the development of waterways in 1,620 km of the Ganga might cause their extinction.”
Bangladesh: 2 dolphins killed in lockdown On May 10 a gutted carcass[xxiv] of a freshwater dolphin was found in Halda river sanctuary by locals in the south eastern town of Raojan. The remains was of 62 inch long Ganges river dolphin, fishery department official Abdullah al Mamun said. It had suffered a sharp and deep incision from its neck to tail and layers of its body fat—from which oil is extracted for use in traditional medicines—were missing, he said.
The dolphin is the second to be found dead in the same sanctuary since Bangladesh imposed its lockdown, said Manzoorul Kibria, coordinator of the Halda River Research Laboratory (HRRL). The Ganges river dolphin can weigh up to 100 kg and grow to 2.6 meters long, are known for their long beaks which have 28 sharp teeth on both sides of their jaws. The Halda river is home to around 170 dolphins, according to HRRL.
Oct. 2019 Oil Spill disaster On October 25, 2019 a tanker carrying 1,200 tonnes of diesel collided[xxv] with another ship on the Karnaphuli river near Chittagong port and spilled tonnes of fuel, port authority spokesman Omar Faruk said. At least 10 tonnes of diesel spread across an area of 16 km, but local media said the amount spilled was likely to be far higher.
Environmentalists said the spillage posed a “serious threat to the biodiversity in the river”, particularly for some 60 freshwater dolphins who use the area as their breeding ground. Marine science expert Shafiqul Islam said it was a “major disaster” for the river’s dolphin population as they could inhale toxic petroleum vapours while surfacing to breathe. “The dolphins could experience both acute and chronic exposure through their respiratory system and through ingestion of contaminated prey,” he told AFP.
Karnaphuli a key breeding ground for the dolphins experienced a similar accident in 2016. The dolphin population is already threatened by nets used to catch fish and shrimp. In the past 4 years at least 20 dolphins died unnaturally—mostly through pollution—in the Karnaphuli and the adjacent Halda river. Notably, Bangladesh banned ship movement in major rivers in the country’s south western mangroves in 2014 after an oil spillage occurred at the heart of an Irrawaddy dolphin sanctuary.
Threats from fishing gear The endangered Ganges river dolphin and species of threatened freshwater turtle and otter are wildlife most at risk[xxvi] from getting tangled up in waste fishing gear adrift in the trans-boundary Ganges river system. Scientists associated with the Sea to Source expedition carried out a biodiversity threat assessment of Gangetic wildlife species most at risk from entanglement in abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) in nine sampling sites along the river in Bangladesh coast in the Bay of Bengal to upstream in the Himalayas in Rishikesh, India.
All 4 freshwater dolphin species threatened The latest “Red List” of threatened species, released by IUCN on Dec. 10, 2020 finds all four known freshwater dolphin species are now threatened with extinction[xxvii], after newly discovered information on the tucuxi in the Amazon river system showed it too is endangered.
Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the IUCN red list, said the impact of human activity was a driver for many species nearing extinction. “All of these things are down to human activities, whether it’s direct hunting or fishing or harvesting of the species, to introducing invasive species, changing habitats to agriculture, urbanization, climate change,” he said. “The human footprint is everywhere.”
Compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat (email@example.com)