The Ailing Endangered Ganges Dolphin: Neglected on Home Turf

Posted on January 24, 2011 in Environment

By Shreya Ramachandran:

The Ganges dolphin is one of the lesser-known victims of environmental destruction in India. The Bengal tiger has received high publicity in the country, and so has the Asian elephant, but the Ganges dolphin is perhaps at a more immediate threat of dying out than the former two species.

The Ganges dolphin is one among the three subspecies of river dolphins that exist globally – the others being in River Amazon in South America and river Indus in Pakistan. The “Gaiji”, the subspecies of river dolphin that used to swim in the Yangtze river in China, no longer exists and has been declared “functionally extinct” after a team of scientists combed the area and failed to find a single dolphin.

In India, the Ganges dolphin – found in the Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems – is suffering more and more each day. The river itself is no longer a viable habitat – its depth has decreased because of the excess of sand that layer its bed; it has twisted and turned into several streams that do not make for a smoothly flowing water body; adamant factories from nearby continue to cough toxic chemicals into the river; corpses are set afloat on the river because of its traditional sacred, purifying value in the religion of Hinduism.

As with most other threatened species, humankind has a major role to play. Fishermen in Bihar poach more and more dolphins every day because their oil and meat yield great commercial returns – they are useful as aphrodisiacs and as a bait to trap catfish.
The number of dolphins has dwindled to a mere few thousands. While the help of charitable global conservation agencies is slowly reaching the northern plains of India – for instance, WWF has a ‘Save the Dolphin’ scheme under which efforts are being made to clean up the river habitat and set up a riverbank-patrol to prevent poaching of the dolphins – their contribution alone is insufficient to lead the dolphin back into security.

The most important role can only be played by Indian conservation authorities and non-profit organisations – because they are geographically closer to the problem, as well as equipped with the necessary local knowledge and resources to provide the best help. It remains to be seen whether the dolphin is safe on its home turf – however, it looks unlikely. The Ganges dolphin has been named the National Aquatic Animal, organisations like Aaranyak, Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Centre (VBREC) are working to find methods to protect the remaining dolphins, and the Bihar government is planning to start an awareness campaign among fishermen in the state for conservation of the dolphins. Despite all these measures, poachers still rake in alarmingly high numbers of killed dolphins.

“It stunned me that such a large number of dolphins were killed by poachers right under the nose of the government,” R.K. Sinha, an expert on Ganges dolphins, told news agency IANS. “The conservation of dolphins should be taken seriously.”

Efforts are being made within the country, but the urgency of the situation needs to be appreciated in order for the two thousand river dolphins to be safe in their home turf.