Can a Sanctuary in the Brahmaputra Save River Dolphins in India?

2016/11/30

Categories: published environment

Published: Lead editorial, The Assam Tribune, 29th November 2016. Published: Lead editorial, The Assam Tribune, 29th November 2016.

River Dolphins (scientifically named Platanista gangetica and locally referred to as ‘Xihu’) in the Brahmaputra used to be a familiar sight for the residents of Guwahati and ferry travellers alike. Over the years, however, there has been a visible reduction in their sightings. Despite being designated an endangered species, the National Aquatic Animal has attracted very little conservation effort compared to rhinos and tigers. As its habitat in the Ganga continues to be threatened by human interaction, the Brahmaputra in Assam has the potential to play a pivotal role in the conservation of this species. To this end, concerted efforts should be made by the central government to set up a Dolphin Sanctuary in Assam, like the existing one in Bihar.

The South Asian river dolphin is found in the freshwater rivers of Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, while its Gangetic subspecies is primarily found in the Brahmaputra-Ganga-Meghna river system. They have a distinctively long pointed nose and large flippers. Lack of an eye lens renders them effectively blind, and they use echolocation for navigation and hunting. Unfortunately, industrial pollution combined with rampant killing for their oil and meat has severely affected the dolphin population in the Ganga. Building of barrages in their natural habitat, shipping cargo, entanglement in fishing nets, and deteriorating water quality have also contributed to rapid decline in its numbers. Its population in the Ganga alone has declined from 6,000 in 1982 to around 2,000 in 2005, and further below 1,800 recently, according to the data compiled by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). There was a time when Dolphins could be seen all over the Brahmaputra too, but now its sightings are limited to a few locations. According to a recent survey, there are now fewer than 250 river dolphins in the Brahmaputra. It is, therefore, of paramount importance that urgent steps be taken up for the conservation of river dolphins.

To help address this issue, the Central government has established the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary, a 50 km stretch of the Ganga river in Bhagalpur district of Bihar. It was notified as a protected area for the Gangetic dolphins in 1991 and is, currently, the only one dedicated to South Asian river dolphins in Asia. Recently, the government of West Bengal has proposed to setup another Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in the River Hooghly.

It would be unwise on the part of the central government to concentrate all its efforts in one sanctuary and river system, and effort should be made to set up a second sanctuary in Assam. A collaboration between the Central and State governments is the need of the hour to find an adequate stretch for a dolphin sanctuary in Guwahati. As the Ganga continues to see huge construction effort of dams and barrages, the Dolphin population faces the possibility of potential genetic isolation. Also, any catastrophic event in a small area such as disease or habitat loss would have a devastating impact on the dolphin’s status. Preserving the species in multiple locations provides it an improved scope of survival. The Brahmaputra is also less polluted due to fewer industries along its banks, and thus boasts of better chances of boosting dolphin numbers if organized efforts are launched in that arena.

To make it an economically viable eco-tourism project, the government can build a Dolphin Watch Center for tourists and locals alike. A State Dolphin Day should be declared to generate awareness amongst people. The state government has already developed some eco-tourism hotspots in Kukuramra in Kamrup and Kulsi River in Dhubri where boat rides were arranged for tourists. Yet, more intense efforts are required to save the species from extinction as well as to exploit its full potential for boosting tourism. The establishment of a Dolphin Research and Education Center in one of the local colleges or universities would prove to be fruitful. Combined with a captive breeding program and providing alternative employment to small fishermen who poach river dolphins for fish bait, the fate of the gentle animal can be effectively reversed.

Assam has been lauded globally for its successful role in conserving Rhinos and Tigers. The Kaziranga National Park now houses the highest density of tigers in the world as well as the last major population of one-horned rhinos. More than 20,000 people recently voted for the river dolphin to be declared as the city animal of Guwahati. This public goodwill should be appropriately utilized by the Central as well as the State government to put into action an organized and scientific plan to save this beautiful species from extinction which will be a matter of civic pride for the people of Assam.