Conserving our endangered dolphins
The Indus River dolphin, known as the second-most endangered freshwater species in the world and listed among the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s threatened species, is struggling for its survival. Locally called Bhulan, the blind dolphins are confronting multiple threats which range from reduction in freshwater flows to pollution and harmful fishing practices in the Indus River.
According to Dr Gillian T Braulik, a dolphin conservation expert and member of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group, an 80% decline has been witnessed in its distribution range and habitat due to the construction of barrages and water diversions for agriculture purposes. Being stranded in low waters is a constant threat to these dolphins, according to the regional head of Sindh and Balochistan WWF-Pakistan, Dr Babar Khan.
Stranding usually occurs during the period of canal closures when floodgates are closed resulting in a drop in water level. Furthermore, intensive fishing in the core dolphin habitat is another threat which increases the probability of dolphins getting entangled in fishing nets, making it critical to continuously monitor the Indus River and adjacent canals.
Although the dolphin population is confronting different threats, a recent population survey led by the WWF-Pakistan shows an increase in the number of dolphins across its population range in the Indus River. The preliminary results of the study survey titled ‘Signs of hope for the endemic and endangered Bhulan’ reveal that a total of 1,816 dolphins were counted during an assessment conducted between 20th March and 13th April 2017. The dolphin encounter rate was higher, ie, 1,075 in the downstream Indus River with the highest population observed between Guddu and Sukkur barrages in Sindh — a legally protected area known as the Indus dolphin game reserve. The results are optimistic as an increase of 504 dolphins has been observed in comparison to the last survey conducted in 2011.
A dolphin population assessment has been carried out every five years since 2001. This has been critical in understanding the population trend of this species and health of its habitat in order to adapt their management initiatives accordingly. According to the WWF-Pakistan, the overall aim of the assessment is to provide a basis for improved conservation actions and adaptive management in order to protect and conserve them. The Indus dolphin rescue programme, initiated by the WWF-Pakistan in collaboration with the Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD), has been an integral component of conservation work for the dolphins.
It must be pointed out that during the first comprehensive study conducted by the WWF-Pakistan it was reported that about 1,100 dolphins exist in the Indus River. Another study led by Dr Gillian in 2006 found a total of 1,410 Bhulans, while 1,312 were reported in a survey conducted in 2011 by the same organisation. These were the direct count of the abundance of Bhulans in the river.
While commenting on the current survey results, Rab Nawaz, the senior director programmes of the WWF-Pakistan, shared that it is exciting that the survey has shown positive results in terms of an increasing dolphin population. He said that it is because of the support of the provincial wildlife departments that joint efforts to conserve a viable population of the Indus River dolphins have been taken by reducing losses in canal stranding through rescue operations, capacity-building sessions with officials of departments concerned and community awareness. He also shared that since 1992 the WWF-Pakistan in collaboration with the SWD and local communities has been able to rescue and successfully release 131 dolphins stranded in canals.
However, to further revive the dolphin population in the river, it is high time that all relevant stakeholders sat together and developed a mechanism to address threats confronting the dolphin population in the Indus River. Shortage of water and unsustainable fishing practices should be addressed on a priority basis.