Saturday, January 19, 2008

India: Indus dolphin discovered in unlikely waterway

Wildlife in India is incredibly resilient. Nothing else can explain the discovery of dolphins recently in the unlikeliest of places—the Harike wetland in Punjab, which has so far been famous as a winter habitat for migratory waterfowl from lands as far away as Siberia.

The first sighting in Harike of the Indus dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor), one of the seven surviving freshwater species of the aquatic mammal, and classified as a critically endangered species in the Red Data Book of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, has spread waves of amazement among wildlife enthusiasts.

“In India’s drab wildlife scenario, this is the most significant find. It adds to the diversity of the country’s aquatic system,” says B.C. Choudhary, an authority on freshwater dolphins with the endangered species management wing of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

The Eureka moment came on December 14, when Basanta Rajkumar, divisional forest officer in charge of the Harike wildlife sanctuary, was patrolling on a boat to follow up on reports of an unusually big fish in the huge water reservoir formed by the confluence of the Sutlej and the Beas.
Initially, it was presumed to be the mahseer, a species of trout not common in the area.

“When I noticed the smooth hump of the creature rapidly flipping out of the water, Iknew it was a dolphin,” he says. A week later, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-India team, led by Sandeep Bahera, a freshwater dolphin conservationist, vindicated his surmise after sighting a family of half a dozen dolphins at two different places along the 25-km stretch upstream of the Beas.

With the United Nations declaring 2007 to be the Year of the Dolphin, the chance discovery couldn’t have come at a better time.

So far, the only known sweet-water dolphin in India has been the Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica gantetica), which inhabits the Ganga-Brahmaputra system.

The Indus dolphin has been reported in the Indus river and its tributaries in Pakistan, which were once linked with the river system of Punjab. Last sighted in Punjab in the 1930s, the Indus dolphin was thereafter believed to have become extinct.

A family of half a dozen dolphins was sighted at two different places upstream of the BeasThough the origin of the Harike dolphins is still not clear, experts believe this to be a small sub-group of the Indus species that got separated from the main population because of the construction of dams and barrages on the Indus river system in the 1950s, but survived extinction due to an ideal habitat.

“These are resident breeding stock which survived in the Beas,” says Bahera—a possibility corroborated by the fact that the Indus dolphin is common in the same tributary about 140 km downstream of the Harike barrage, in Pakistan.

With locals reporting native dolphins, known as bhuland (meaning big fish), for over a century, experts believe Indus dolphins have existed in Harike area for long but have somehow escaped scientific sighting.

Authorities, however, are not ruling out the possibility that the dolphins travelled upstream into the Beas from the Indus tributaries in Pakistan during the 1988 floods, but this seems improbable considering the barrages on the way.

Of the Gangetic species, only 1,800 dolphins are reported to have survived. Despite a WWF conservation programme, their number has been dwindling due to degradation of habitat.

Plagued by an alarming level of pollution, encroachments, indiscriminate fishing and government apathy, the ecological wonderland of Harike, too, faces a serious threat, as reflected in the dwindling number and species of migratory birds in recent years.

This grim reality check has toned down the euphoria over the discovery. “This is a very small population of rare dolphins, which needs immediate conservation efforts,” says the WWF report.
The area of illegal encroachments in Harike is pegged at 650 hectares, most of it dating back to the 1980s, when Harike was a popular hideout for terrorists. Cultivation has led to the destruction of tall grass—a natural habitat for birds.

The pesticide and fertiliser run-off from fields has added to the alarming level of pollutants. About 310 million litre of domestic and industrial effluent flows into the Sutlej and the Beas across Punjab every day. While the Sutlej has already turned into a toxic trove and a biological desert, two industries and seven towns discharge their effluents into the Beas.

Pollution is the root cause of another serious problem— the spread of hyacinth, an obnoxious weed which now covers two-thirds of the lake.

Indiscriminate fishing, which yields a revenue of Rs 1 crore a year for the Fisheries Department, has also been playing havoc with the habitat of migratory birds, and is now seen as a major threat to the dolphins.

Prohibited in 1999, when the sanctuary was declared protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, fishing continues to thrive in response to the demand for freshwater catch. Much of the degradation has stemmed from poor management. Eight government departments are involved in managing the wetland, with little coordination among them.

The funds are meagre and ill-timed. For instance, the State Council of Science and Technology (SCST), the nodal agency, sanctioned Rs 4 lakh for removal of hyacinth in November last year, ignoring the fact that waterfowl migrate to the sanctuary in winter. “We are only focusing on the protection of the wetland while habitat improvement is what it needs,” says Rajkumar.

Several plans for improvement are stuck in paperwork. One such plan by the Department of Forest and Wildlife for the development of the Harike habitat over the next 10 years, entailing a cost of Rs 32 crore, has been gathering dust for over a year.

“We will soon formulate an integrated plan,” says Neelima Jerath, additional director, SCST. The discovery of the dolphins comes as an excellent opportunity for the authorities to revive eco-tourism and garner funds from international agencies so that Harike’s endangered birds and dolphins no longer remain on a wing and a prayer.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"