Early morning, on the Indus River at Taunsa Barrage, the mist on the river is thick and approaching fishermen boats look like as though they were gliding through clouds detached from the river, their prows cutting the mist and causing billows to rise as they silently wade through the water. The Adavasi (Indigenous fisherman community also known as the Mallahs) cast their nets, hauling in the occasional fish, sometimes barely enough to feed their families, sometimes enough to sell in the market. The local fishermen are content with their catch, be it little or sufficient, they have been set free from the clutches from the monopoly of a contractor which led to most of the community members to be drawn into bonded labour like conditions.
The recent stay order in August 2018 granted against the auction of fishing rights in Punjab’s rivers and freshwater reservoirs by the Lahore High Court has not only brought smiles back to the fishermen folks but also proves to be the proverbial silver lining for what one might consider an unexpected figure, one of the last surviving species of river dolphins — the Indus River dolphin.
A 1,154 kms stretch of the Indus between the Chashma and Kotri barrage is home to an estimated 1,816 freshwater dolphins. Way before the LHC decision, lease system was abolished in Sindh by the provincial government due to overwhelming evidence of its devastating impact on both the fishermen communities and the river ecosystem.
The blind Indus river dolphin is amongst the six freshwater species of dolphins and porpoises that are found in the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy and Mekong rivers in Asia, as well as in the Amazon River system in South America. These lesser known sentient cetaceans adopted to live in freshwaters thousands of years ago and are considered to be one of the oldest creatures found on earth alongside marine turtles and sharks. Unfortunately, all six species have been pushed to the brink of extinction. The reason — unsustainable fishing practices across the length and breadth of the two continents they inhibit.
Research and studies conducted in past suggested that across their range in the Indus Delta, the iconic river dolphin faced an increasingly uncertain future. As of 1990 the rivers — many of them dammed, polluted, and diverted — the Indus River dolphin’s range had shrunk by 80 percent.
The interest in Indus dolphin research peaked in the 90s when news from China declaring the Yangtze River Dolphin known as the Baiji dolphin extinct (a species declared functionally extinct in 2006) created waves across the globe. In an effort to prevent history from repeating itself, researchers from South Africa (Richard Garstang), United Kingdom (Gill Braulik) and Pakistan teamed up to study the species and its habitat.
“The need for an Indus dolphin survey was felt because for a very long time we relied on information from reports of 1970s. Though the previous studies were professionally conducted, it still meant that there was a gap of over 20 year, indicating a new study in the offing,” recalls Ali Hassan Habib, the then Director General of World Wide Fund for Nature, Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan). “Ever since the last survey, every Conservation organisations relied on information from the locals of sporadic sightings. We needed a comprehensive survey, for which we conducted an initial baseline survey in 1999,” Habib added further.
The team undertook a number of activities to figure this out. They compiled historical dolphin sightings along the river, conducted interviews with older fishermen living in the dolphin’s former ranges, surveyed previous studies published in the scientific literature and assembled data about major construction events along the river.
They found that human activity, not surprisingly, were behind the dolphin’s decline. From 1886 to 1971, a series of 17 gated, largely impassable dams were built along the river, essentially splitting the dolphin’s habitat into 17 disjointed sections. Some of those sections were regularly drained for agriculture, leaving them almost completely dry for months on end. The Sindh Wildlife Department declared a 200 km stretch of the river, between Guddu and Sukkur barrages, the ‘Indus Dolphin Reserve’ in 1974, and commercial fishing was banned around the same time. But even then in most fragments, the dolphins disappeared within 50 years following dam construction. Today, the dolphins can only be found in just six of those sections.
Initiated in 2001 under the leadership of Ali Hassan Habib, the Indus Dolphin Survey has been conducted four times after every five years to assess the species population. The latest survey, conducted in March/April 2017 shows encouraging signs of an increase in the population, with improvements in survival rates, an increase in the number of calves and a drop in deaths.
“River dolphins are indicators of the health of the Indus River and their recovery is a hopeful sign for the river and the millions of people who depend on it,” says Dr. Uzma Khan, Lead for Global River Dolphin initiative with WWF-International. According to Ms. Khan the government departments should fund such surveys so instead of recording a head count a proper monitoring mechanism should be put in place. “Tagging a dolphin is hard work and involves a certain amount of financial assistance. In Pakistan we have only been able to tag a male Indus dolphin once in January 2009, which was rescued from Mirwah canal. The data we collected from tagging Musafir (name of the dolphin) indicated that it travelled for 15 kilometres up and downstream, twice through the barrages,” she added.
Experts believe that monitoring dolphins not only addresses the urgent need to conserve this species, but also provides vital information for the conservation of freshwater ecosystems. “Fresh water dolphins in the Amazon river are known to travel long distances, upto 400 km from the site of tagging. Thus, if we introduce tracking Indus river dolphins using satellite technology, it will provide new insight into the animals’ behaviour and habitat’s conditions. This in turn will help conservationists create stronger conservation plans and better advocate for the protection of the species which depend on connected river systems for its survival,” Ms. Khan said.
Back at Taunsa Barrage, as the sun dips the Mallah’s pull in their last haul of the day. After abolishing the leaseholding system, the fishermen community fish only from dawn to dusk. They no longer fish overnight, which was already banned in Pakistan, but due to payment of debts to leaseholder’s debts the fishermen folks over fished the rivers. Slowly giving up old habits of casting illegal gill nets that ensnared many dolphins is allowing the river to start repairing itself from years of over fishing.
As for the Indus River dolphins, their long-term survival still remains questionable. Studies predicted that 100 years after being isolated by the dams, dolphin populations only have a 37 percent probability of survival. In other words, as long as dams and barrages are being built in their habitat, the Indus River dolphins will probably never be completely free from the threat of extinction, unless drastic measures are taken.
This is an edited version of the article that appeared in print