Just as a tiger is indicative of a good forest, river dolphins are an indicator of a healthy river. They are, in fact, an umbrella species of the river ecosystem. But as India’s rivers become a dumping ground for sewage, chemical waste and garbage, the ecosystems are dying, and so are the dolphins.
The Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica) is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Matthias Fiechter, IUCN’s Media and Communications Officer, said, “The population data that was compiled for the IUCN Red List assessment of the Ganges dolphin included documentation of a total of about 5,000 individuals. However, as much of the dolphins’ range in Bangladesh has not been surveyed, the actual abundance of the species may be higher,” said Matthias Fiechter, IUCN’s (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Media and Communication Officer, when contacted by Mongabay-India.
The endangered subspecies inhabits the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basin of India, Nepal and Bangladesh and the disjunct Karnaphuli-Sangu river basin of Bangladesh, with 80% of the dolphin’s territory falling within India’s borders.
Pollution threaten rivers and the dolphins that live in it
River pollution along with mining, agriculture, and industrial development have degraded the water quality of the Ganga river in particular and rivers around India in general. According to a report from the parliament of India, the number of polluted rivers in 2015 was 302 which, by 2018, had increased to 350.
Amy Fraenkel, executive secretary of the Bonn-based Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, emphasized that the plastic pollution crisis in Asia is intensifying and has emerged as one of the major threats to rivers—and to dolphins. She said 36% of endangered aquatic species are at risk of ingesting or being trapped and entangled in plastic waste.
Agricultural runoff and industrial waste are a major threat to river dolphins in Asia. Activities like mining have their own impact. Ranjit Kumar Singh, assistant professor of geology at Sahibganj College, says that in the Sahibganj district of Jharkhand, there is a large amount of stone quarrying on the banks of the Ganga, and the dust produced by this activity is dangerous for dolphins and their riverine habitat.
The wide use of pesticides in agriculture across the Gangetic delta is also a threat. For instance, a common practice among farmers is to use Furadan (banned in the US) on nearby brinjal fields to protect their vegetable against insects, but the pesticide also impacts the migratory birds who breed on the riverbanks, and flows into the river, harming both dolphins and fish, said Sunil Kumar Choudhary, Professor and Former Head, Department of Botany, TM Bhagalpur University, Bhagalpur and Member, Bihar State Ganga Rejuvenation, Protection & Management Committee.
Noise pollution in the Ganga is increasingly a threat too. In Sultanganj, which falls within Bihar’s dolphin sanctuary in the Bhagalpur district, a bridge is currently being built over the Ganga. Construction has driven away the dolphins, said Gopal Sharma, a scientist at the Zoological Survey of India in Patna.
Now, under the BJP government’s ambitious Inland Waterways project, 1,620 km of National Waterways will be developed from Allahabad (now Prayagraj) in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal to enable the movement of commercial vessels of at least 1,500 tons' capacity. Questioning the much-hyped project, Chowdhary said that the noise emanating from cargo vessels will harm aquatic life, especially dolphins. On the issue of environmental clearance of National Waterways-1, a petition was filed by Bharat Jhunjhunwala in the National Green Tribunal which was cleared by the NGT on May 4, 2022. NGT refused to pass any other order against the sanctioned decision of the Allahabad High Court in this regard dated April 28, 2016.
Impact of dams and infrastructure projects
Questioning the construction of big dams on the river Ganga, 65-year-old fisherman Dashrath Sahni asks, “If a man’s hands and feet are tied, will he be able to run? Similarly, you have blocked the natural flow of Mother Ganga in Farakka and Tehri dams, then how will the current arise in the water?”
At least 50 species of sea fish used to come here and would swim straight upstream to Allahabad (now Prayagraj) in Uttar Pradesh until 1971 when the Farakka dam was not yet operational, recalled the veteran fisher. The numbers of hilsa alone (tenualosailisha or Ilish) used to be enough to support families of the fishing community for months. Sonakshi, prawn and silan or India basa fish also used to swim through the Ganga. However, with the construction of the Farakka dam, the westward movement of these sought-after fishes has stopped. “If local fishes face extinction or their number declines, then what will the dolphins eat, and how will they be protected?” he asked.
“Restore the free flow of the Ganga and it will clean itself,” he advised.
Meanwhile, detangling his fishing net, somewhere near the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, 70-year-old fisherman Susti Haldar rues, “As compared to the past, the catch has reduced to only 25%.” He blames the construction of the barrage for this, saying, “Due to the barrage, the depth and flow of Ganga have altered. This has adversely impacted the number of fish and dolphins.”
Reiterating that the river is dying, Sahni’s fellow fisherman Ashok Sahni lamented that Ganga cannot be saved if India continues to block the river’s flow to produce hydropower and divert water to supply fields and cities.
The concerns of fishermen are echoed by experts. According to an INTACH report, 942 dams, barrages and weirs are operational on river Ganga and its tributaries. Out of these, 11 dams and barrages are built on mainstream Ganga. A report by the South Asia Network on Dams, River and People (SANDRP) reveals that these structures have decreased the Ganga’s flow by 47% in 30 to 40 years.
Environmentalist Manoj Misra, who works on the preservation of rivers like Ganga and Yamuna, reiterated that with almost 1000 structures obstructing the natural flow of the river and preventing its natural flood cycle, riverine plants and animals are deprived of nutrients and food.
Dams, reservoirs, barrages have also led to fragmentation of the dolphin population, added Choudhary. According to the WWF, hydropower dams, irrigation barrages, and embankments have reduced river dolphin density by 50 to 70% in Asia.
Indiscriminate fishing practices
Choudhary, the member of the Bihar State Ganga Rejuvenation, Protection & Management Committee, said that the use of synthetic nets leads to a sharp increase in plastic waste in the river, which is dangerous. Dolphins often get trapped in the synthetic fishing net as bycatch or eat it, he explained. In fact, accidental bycatch is the biggest cause of death for river dolphins in Asia. He said that increasingly, fishing is being done by a “fishing mafia” with “muscle power” but a very narrow understanding of the river ecosystem, destroying riparian diversity. Traditional fishermen would use cotton nets, which were not as tightly woven or damaging to smaller fish and dolphins. “Fishers know when and how to fish and when not to, but they are being forced to work as river mafia employees due to a lack of livelihood,” he explained. “Our people even end up getting physically assaulted by them (river mafia),” says 57-year-old Tapan Haldar. Many fishers, with a shrinking scope of earning, end up migrating to Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata to make ends meet, he said.
These “mosquito nets” also harm dolphins by trapping very small fish in their fine mesh, depriving dolphins of their sources of food.
It isn’t just the nets that are dangerous. SANDRP has reported that accidental deaths of dolphins from the propeller of boats and steamers are also a major concern.
The endangered animals are threatened by poaching too. There are several cases of hunting of dolphins each year despite the hunting of the species being prohibited in India under the Wildlife Act 1972. Dolphin oil is used by some fishing communities as bait to catch a particular species of catfish, and also as a local remedy for joint pain relief, explained Nachiket Kelkar, head of the Riverine Ecosystems And Livelihoods program at Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mumbai.
Fishing communities hold the key to dolphin conservation, yet problems abound
The fishing community could play an important role in conserving the dolphins in Ganga but there are several challenges that continue to lie ahead.
Pointing to the dolphins in the middle of the river Ganga, 65-year-old fisherman Dashrath Sahni asserts that people of his community are the “farmers of the river”. Just, as no one can understand the field better than the farmer, who else can understand the river better than us, he said.
“Mother Ganga is our life, from this, we earn and feed our family. If we have to save dolphins, it will not happen without our community,” he added.
In Bihar’s dolphin sanctuary in Bhagalpur, an initiative called Dolphin Mitra (Friends of Dolphins) appoints fishers to help conserve dolphins and clean up the stretch of the Ganga river in the 60-km sanctuary.
Dashrath Sahni, his son Chandan Sahni and another fisherman Ashok Sahni patrol the Ganga for eight to ten kilometers every day in their boat, keeping an eye out for suspicious activities, which they would either try to stop as a team or inform the forest department and police about. They are thus key to the government efforts to save Ganga dolphins. However, they have not received their wages for the last two years. Sahni and other members of the group claim that they were assured that Rs. 10,000 will be paid to them from 2019, but they have not got it till now.
“We have not even been provided with an ID card, despite submitting the requisite documents for it last year. So, we are at risk during work,” Balmiki Sahni, 32, who also works as a Dolphin Mitra, added.
Does a sanctuary in Jharkhand hold promise for the species?
The Jharkhand government has proposed two stretches in Sahibganj district in Jharkhand for dolphin safaris to boost eco-tourism and promote conservation of the national aquatic animal, a forest department official said in May this year.
Sahibganj has a stretch of 83 km of the Ganga, just a few kilometers from the Farakka Barrage. Divisional Forest Officer Manish Tiwari says, “This is a unique location as it is a confluence of several river tributaries and the Ganga and this confluence in fact creates conducive conditions for the dolphins to thrive. There is a significant accumulation of water here and that’s good. We have proposed to the government that this area should also be declared a dolphin sanctuary,” he said.
Ranjit Kumar Singh, Assistant Professor, Geology, at Sahibganj College, agreed with Tiwari. He says, “The Ganges is shrinking due to siltation in Sahibganj, which threatens its biodiversity and dolphins. A dolphin sanctuary in Sahibganj would somehow put some checks and balances,” he said.
Others are not so sure. For one, aquatic life thrives in flowing water, not accumulated water from the barrage as is the case in Sahibganj. Kelkar of Wildlife Conservation Trust added that habitats near the Farakka barrage might function like “ecological traps”, because of the combination of high fishing activity and low water availability—when the barrage releases water, dolphins may use these areas but then get entangled in gillnets. Secondly, desilting, which would need to be carried out, would also put aquatic animals at risk. Besides these issues, Sahibganj is the site of the central government’s first major river port; this leaves many wondering how a port and the waters around it can possibly be safe for aquatic life.
WWF is working on a pledge to prevent the decline of river dolphin numbers by 2030 in Asia and South America, and to double the number of most threatened species by this date. The threats to river dolphins are many and they acknowledge there is a need for country-to-country and species-specific policies to deal with it.
Fraenkel calls for an agreement between India, Nepal, and Bangladesh for the conservation of the Gangetic dolphin, as the endangered species is found in these three countries. Kelkar agrees: “A transboundary agreement is needed for the conservation of Ganges dolphins. At present, WWF is conducting a series of consultations with the World Bank and other dolphin experts to discuss development of transboundary plans. Transboundary agreements are important because these rivers are shared and dams exist on most of them, creating potential conflicts over water sharing, which will increase with climate change and human pressure.”
Meanwhile, the National Mission for Clean Ganga and CAMPA Project (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) has also been working to spread awareness of the importance of dolphin conservation. In 2021, the government launched a conservation initiative known as Project Dolphin, which will involve conservation of dolphins and the aquatic habitat through use of modern technology specially 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, according to the government.
Rahul Singh produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. first published by Mongabay India on 3 August 2022 and by Mongabay Hindi on 12 August 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
Banner image: A Gangetic dolphin sighted at the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary / Credit: Mrinal Kaushik.