Polluted rivers, dying marine life. Shrinking forests, decreasing tigers. The heart-wrenching figures are all too depressing. But amid all the dismal news on the wildlife front, one tiny piece of news has come as a breath of fresh air: the number of dolphins in the Ganga and its tributaries in the upper Ganga system has increased from 600 in 2005 to 671 this year. This also indicates that the water in which the dolphins habitat is clean and worth being their home. This comes in tow of the distressing findings of a recent study conducted by the National Cancer Registry Programme that cancer is common in the parts where the Ganga flows.
The dolphin census, a first-of-its-kind initiative, was part of WWF-Indias initiative My Ganga, My Dolphin. Intended to map the Ganges river dolphin throughout the 2,800-km stretch of the Ganges and its tributaries (Yamuna, Som, Ken, Betwa, Ghagra and Geruwa), it was done in partnership with the Uttar Pradesh forest department. The campaign also endeavours to raise awareness among local communities in and around the banks of the Ganga about the presence and conservation of the national aquatic animal, as well as help in capacity building of stakeholders associated with the conservation of the mammal.
The Ganges river dolphin, or susu, as it is called by locals, lives in one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The major threats to the species are the loss of its habitat due to construction of dams and irrigation projects, removal of river water, siltation arising from deforestation, pollution and entanglement in fishing nets.
Explaining the importance of the survival of Gangetic Dolphins, often known as the Tiger of the Ganges, Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO of WWF-India, says the river dolphin is an indicator animal and has the same position in a river ecosystem as a tiger in a forest: its presence indicating a healthy river ecosystem.
Talking about the necessity of the campaign, Ravi Singh says, The rapid decline in the number of dolphins across the country is of great concern and needs immediate attention. Over the past few years, the distribution range of these dolphins has shrunk drastically, with their population being adversely affected by various developmental activities like construction of dams and barrages resulting in lean river flows, indiscriminate fishing, heavy siltation of rivers due to deforestation, pollution of the river and habitat destruction.
He also adds that while the population of dolphins in India in 1982 was estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000, now it is less than 2,000 with an annual mortality estimated to be at 130-160 animals. The mammal is now listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and categorised as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and enjoys high levels of legal protection, nationally and internationally.
WWF-India has adopted the Ganges river dolphin as a species of special concern and its work in the upper Ganga river in the state of Uttar Pradesh has only confirmed that habitat and aquatic biodiversity conservation can succeed when the government, communities and civil society collaborate and work together towards this end, he says.
The campaign, one of the biggest participatory surveys on the Gangetic river dolphins, commenced with 18 teams, with roughly 150 people surveying the Ganga system in three days. It was a daunting task. Based on the gained knowledge and the ever evolving dolphin trends, the immediate next steps of the campaign include preparation of a short and a long-term action plan for dolphin conservation, its habitat and the river in Uttar Pradesh. The capacity building of local stakeholders, by giving them regular training to monitor the river health, is also one of the key elements of the future plan. The team will explore the possibility of expanding this campaign to other states, including Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam, and other rivers stretches with recorded dolphin distribution, Singh says.
But Dr Sandeep Behera, associate director, rivers basins & biodiversity, WWF-India, who has spent almost 25 years of his life researching the species, staying with fishermen and their families while doing his PhD on river dolphins, is worried. The gradual degradation of the dolphin habitat due to pollution, low water, heavy fishing, construction of dams, etc, changes the behaviour of this species as also its breeding patterns. These pressures of fishing, pollution and construction are so acute on the psyche of the dolphin population that it stops breeding, he says.
As a result, most of the dolphins that we see are adult population. So our major cause of concern is not just the number of dolphins. What is more important is to find out whether the population is breeding or not, he adds.
State principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) and chief wildlife warden Rupak De seconds Behera. Numbers are not important. What is significant is that the census process is done properly and scientifically. This initiative, the first ever step to conserve the Gangetic dolphin, has a twin objective of knowing the headcount of the mammal and publicising the campaign for its conservation, De says.
Naina Lal Kidwai, country head, HSBC India and director, Asia-Pacific, says, Partnering in this initiative is an integral part of our commitment to the overall mission of conservation of our water resources. There is a need to sensitise the corporate sector too on water. With 25% of the worlds gross domestic product (GDP) expected to come from 10 river basins of the world, including the Ganga river basin, there is a need to conserve the dolphin. If the dolphin survives, we will survive. This species give us a reason to protect the Ganga and make sure it is healthy, she says, adding that Indias growth is inextricably linked to its rivers and the corporate sector needs to pitch in to do its bit for conservation.
On the stretch of the Ganga, the survey started at Bijnor and concluded at Varanasi. In the Yamuna, a major tributary, the campaign was held from Pachnada in Etawah district to the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna at Sangam in Allahabad. The survey in the Chambal river stretched from Rajghat (in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh) to Pachnada in Etawah, where it flows into the Yamuna. In the Geruwa and Ghaghra rivers, the survey stretched from the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in Bahraich district to Doharighat in Mau district. The campaign in this leg also involved a stretch of the Saryu river in Ayodhya and the Rapti, a tributary of the Ghaghra in Gorakhpur district. In the Betwa, the campaign stretched from Orchhha to Hamirpur, where the river merges with the Yamuna. In the Ken, another tributary of the Yamuna, the survey was done from Banda to Chilla and in the Som river, from Rampur to Deoara.