Indus dolphins are dying out in India – and thriving in Pakistan
“Have you seen dolphins in your area?”
“You mean Bhulan Machi [long-lipped fish],” replied 22-year-old Bagha, a boatman who ferries people on the banks of the Beas river in Karmuwala village of Punjab’s Taran Taran district, 250 km from Chandigarh.
Bagha quickly shared a recent video he shot from his mobile phone, showing a grey figure breaking the river surface, some 15 km upstream of the famous Harike wetland. He said a brown coloured bhulan lives here too with her calf. “Sometimes they chase my boat,” he smiled.
But not everyone is lucky like the boatman to spot this rare mammal. These dolphins, found in the Beas river, are the rare Indus dolphin species, shows research by ecologist Gillian T Braulik and other field research studies.
Indus dolphins or Platanista gangetica minor, locally known as bhulan, are among the eight freshwater dolphin species currently existing in the world. Found in freshwater sources like rivers, these dolphins cannot survive in saltwater like their marine counterparts. These dolphins are blind and depend on echolocation.
Members of the Indus dolphin family are found in Pakistan as well where they have started recouping in recent years. But they are a rare sight in India, reduced to single-digit over time.
According to Gillian Braulik’s 2012 research paper, Indus dolphins used to range freely throughout 3,500 km of the Indus River system, from the delta in Sindh, up to the foothills of the Himalayas in the Indus and its five tributaries – Jhelum, Chenab, Beas, Sutlej and Ravi rivers. This was prior to the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition.
The rivers in pre-Partition times were seamless and unpolluted. There were no irrigation barrages and dams which, when came up in big numbers, degraded the Indus river dolphin’s habitat leading to a decline in population, revealed field studies of the World Wide Fund for Nature. Other factors like gillnet mortalities and water pollution due to the discharge of industrial effluents and agricultural runoff also threatened the freshwater mammal.
The Indus dolphin along with the more popular Ganges river dolphin is a subspecies of the South Asian River dolphin. According to WWF studies, there is growing evidence that these are genetically different and maybe, in the near future, separated into two species.
In Pakistan, however, the Indus dolphins are not that rare a sight as in India. A December 2017 report by the Pakistan division of WWF counted approximately 1,816 Indus dolphins, an increase of 50% since 2001. Their current estimate is 1,987 individuals, confirmed Uzma Khan, WWF Pakistan’s director, biodiversity.
Khan told Mongabay-India that all the dolphins are restricted to the Indus river mainstream but the highest density is between Guddu and Sukkur barrages, in Sindh and Balochistan provinces, with 1,200 dolphins. This area is also protected under the Sindh wildlife law as an Indus River dolphin reserve.
Meanwhile in India, the dolphin population is significantly lower. A 2007 survey by WWF-India found just five Indus dolphins in Indian rivers. WWF India’s survey in 2018 pegged their population to be between five and 11 individuals – not much different from earlier surveys.
“These surveys were held across all major Indus River tributaries – Beas, Sutlej and Ravi – but found dolphins only in a limited stretch of Beas river. There have been no reports of dolphin sightings in another Indus tributary, river Jhelum,” said Suresh Babu, Director-Rivers, Wetlands & Water Policy, WWF-India.
The low population of the Indus dolphin in Indian rivers, according to WWF field researchers and government conservationists, is a sign of worry. “Two years ago, dolphins in Beas had a narrow escape when the release of a chemical fluid from a sugar mill situated on the shore of the river killed countless fish and other aquatic animals,” said Gitanjali Kanwar, a WWF India senior project officer, working with the Punjab Forests and Wildlife Preservation department on their conversation efforts.
She said the dolphins somehow survived that time but it does not mean that the fear is over. “Their number is too small and any sudden catastrophe can wipe them off completely,” she said.
Beas is spread over 500 km originating from Manali in Himachal Pradesh and merges with Sutlej River at Harike Wetland in Punjab. But it is the 100 km stretch between Amritsar, Taran Taran, Ferozpur and Kapurthala districts where these dolphins mostly live.
Kanwar said that of all areas, Taran Taran is the real hotspot in terms of population concentration as five villages – Karmuwala, Gadka, Mundapind, Dhunda and Govindwal – are major potential areas to locate these dolphins along with Desal village in Kapurthala district, she said.
“It is because this particular stretch has enough food availability, adequate water flow and depth needed for their survival, something that eroded in the remaining part of the river and other tributaries due to construction of irrigation barrages besides heavy water level pollution,” she said.
According to data from Punjab Pollution Control Board, while pollution level in Beas is still moderate, Sutlej River, where Indus dolphins once lived, is E Category River, a status accorded to those water bodies having extremely high pollution levels.
Krunesh Garg, member secretary of the pollution control board, said that they classified Beas river to category B – i.e. moderate pollution – after sewerage treatment plants at several points became functional last year specially in the area especially at discharge point at Mukerian upto Harike that was earlier classified in C category. As far as Sutlej is concerned, it has been ranging from category C to category E and efforts are being monitored at the level of Punjab chief secretary and river rejuvenation committee to reduce its pollution level. We have district-level committees and action plans to improve the quality of our water bodies, he said.
“The survival of river dolphins is vital because their mere presence is an indicator that our river bodies are doing fine,” said Kanwar.
Official discovery in India
The “official” discovery of India’s few remaining Indus river dolphins is linked to an episode in 2007 when an India Forest Services officer, Basanta Rajkumar, posted in Punjab spotted it while touring Harike wetland on a motorboat in December, 2007. Later the endangered species management wing of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun confirmed the finding too.
People living along the Beas River, however, have always lived with these dolphins. 60-year-old Dilbag Mohammad from Karmuwala village in Taran Taran district told Mongabay-India that the government officers expressed surprise at seeing these dolphins but he has been watching them since his childhood. “Even my elders often talked about presence of Bhulan Machi deep inside the river,” he said.
Additionally, the presence of dolphins in Beas river too has been well-documented in old gazetteers of Punjab’s Gurdaspur for the year 1914, 1930 and 1936. But agencies responsible for wildlife preservation presumed the Indus dolphin population had been wiped out, before they were re-discovered in 2007.
Punjab’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Kuldeep Kumar said that he can’t comment on why dolphins were not spotted before this sighted. There may be lack of communication between locals and wildlife people but sometimes, a small population, like the one present here, protects itself by hiding for a long time, he said.
In Pakistan, conservation work focused around the species in Pakistan has been ongoing since decades. According to WWF Pakistan, there is more awareness about these species from their habitat protection to translocation of entrapped dolphins from irrigation canals. Since 1992, WWF along with the Sindh Wildlife Department have led a programme rescuing dolphins stranded in irrigation canals, releasing them back into the main river.
“Historically Indus dolphin was hunted and oil was used as emollient for boats and for bait. No such cases have been reported in Pakistan for a long time,” said Uzma Khan.
Arati Kumar Rao, an independent environment writer and photographer, wrote in her 2018 blog that India’s few remaining Indus river dolphins have a fighting chance at survival only if we ensure a healthy river.
The stretch where dolphins live is already declared a conservation area, said Kuldeep Kumar, Punjab’s Principal Chief Conservator, said. Their prey base has been protected by banning commercial fishing since the sugar mill accident in 2018, and there have been better monitoring of the river’s overall health through official and community participation.
He said the presence of a calf with adult dolphins is a good sign that they are breeding. But the problem is that their population is very limited and it needed to be recouped through translocation. “In 2018, we tried translocation through Pakistan WWF – if they had some surplus population of Indus dolphins that can be brought here. But in the meanwhile, our relationship with Pakistan was not that good and we could not do much work on it later,” he said.
But he thinks that there may be a possibility in future to revive this proposal when India-Pakistan relationships improve and wildlife conservation gets more importance in transnational boundaries.
Uzma Khan, WWF Pakistan’s biodiversity chief, however, is cautious of the idea, saying that the population of Indus dolphins is not very big in Pakistan. “Long-distance translocation of these animals can be very risky. It needs to be carefully and scientifically evaluated if translocation of some individuals from Pakistan to India can actually help in securing the future of this very small population,” she said.
WWF India’s Suresh Babu also said that a comprehensive study by a multi-stakeholder group including government departments, experts, institutions etc. needs to be undertaken to understand the risks and benefits involved in such a translocation.