Save the dolphin: Join the battle in Assam

By Sanjoy Hazarika

All of us are familiar with its superb leap out of the water, immortalized in paintings and photographs, on film and digitized media, on banners, glass and stone sculptures and room decorations.

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Down the ages, the 'sishu' or 'xixu' or simply the fresh water Gangetic Dolphin, which travels the waters of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges in eastern South Asia, has been at the heart of the history, geography, culture and legends of the region – especially of Bengal (both sides of the divide), Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Dolphins are mammals. They breathe air, are warm blooded, give birth to babies and nurse their young ones. Each dolphin is believed to have a unique, stereotypic whistle called a "signature whistle" and these whistles are thought to maintain contact between animals that are out of sight of each other.

The Gangetic dolphin is one of only three fresh water species of dolphins in the world and for those of us who have seen them down over the years, they remain captivating, graceful creatures beautifying our world.

But it remains a poor cousin to its better-known oceanic relative, the sea dolphin that is seen at Disney's Sea World and other entertainment centres, figuring prominently in commercial films as well as documentaries.

The less-known fresh water dolphin is to the rivers what humans are to land: the top of the food chain. They ensure, scientists will tell you, a balance in the river ecology – their basic diet is fish and their presence in the river tells us that the water is not just clean but also able to sustain different species in the ecosystem.

But over past few decades, along with other species that man in his infinite vileness and stupidity, had harmed, these wonderful creatures are also fighting a battle for survival. At one time, there were five species: the Gangetic and that of the Indus, the Baiji of the Yangtze Kiang in China, the Buta in the Amazon, the amazing pink dolphin and the la Plata of South America. Recently, the Indus dolphin has been classified along with the Gangetic dolphin as the same species.

Last year, a scientific expedition after weeks of surveys announced that the Baiji was extinct, a victim of the thousands of noisy ferries on the river, over fishing, pollution and scores of other human interventions – including the enormously ugly Three Gorges Dam that the Chinese love to advertise as a great assertion of their scientific and technical prowess.

Today, we must fight to ensure that the dolphins of Assam (there are only about 268 of them), of the Ganges and other rivers survive. They've most recently been captured by the brilliant novelist, Amitav Ghosh, in The Hungry Tide.

Freshwater dolphins are strong symbols for the over-exploitation of Asia's major freshwater ecosystems. They hunt for the same species that human beings seek in terms of food: fish. With his nets and machines, man is a better hunter, reducing the fish available for the other mammal.

So the dolphins now must roam a larger area in the Brahmaputra in order to feed themselves. The silting of the river means that there is less depth especially in the dry season. And because it is so poor-sighted, the dolphin depends on its sonar system to guide it. And while it could earlier make out the older fishing nets, which had larger 'jaalis' (lattices in the netting), its system is unable to make out the thin gauze of the gill nets or 'phasi jaal' as they are also called and are often trapped and struggle to death as a result.

In addition, there are two other direct threats – from poachers in lower and upper Assam who harpoon this beautiful, gentle creature and use its blubber for fish bait. The light fines and jail terms are not really a deterrent. The other threat comes from the constant disturbance of noisy 'bhat bhattis' (country boats with noisy engines) who scurry across the river, especially at Dhunri near Bangladesh, driving the creatures further away to seek peace.

Over the past year, the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research worked with Assam's Forest Department to focus on ways of protecting the dolphin and also involving village communities in their conservation.

For it is no longer enough just to conserve and if village groups are to be involved, they must get a benefit out of it. Today, we are working with villagers in Upper Assam (near Tinsukia) and Central Assam (near Guwahati) to develop green tourism sites, where visitors can go short distances on row boats and watch dolphins at play, in the proximity of human activity (fishing and in the case of Kukurmara, on the Kulsi near Guwahati, where sand dredging and extraction is taking place).

The effort is to help develop skills, knowledge and capacity at the village level that will enable visitors to come from outside the region, watch the dolphins, sample local food and hospitality as well as handicrafts and handlooms. The communities need to develop a vision of eco-tourism where the dolphin is central.

Other groups such as Aaranyak are working to conserve the dolphin, with highly competent scientists and researchers.

With the strong support of the Forest Department and its Principal Conservator of Forests, M.C. Malakar, we have developed a participative approach on public awareness on these issues as well as local understanding.

The task of saving the dolphin took us to R.K. Sinha of Patna University who has done exhaustive work on the mammal because we were disturbed by the reports of kills.

Encouraged by Malakar, we sent a team to Patna, including fishermen who used dolphin oil as bait. They were shown the alternative – the humble 'petu' or entrails of fish, which are usually thrown away as waste. A process of heating bring out an oil that is as effective in snaring fish as dolphin fat and the team has tried it in the Ganges and in the Brahmputra – with excellent results.

The effort must be now spread to the word. Because there is a huge economic advantage to the fish oil – it is virtually at no cost: you are using waste material and dolphin oil can cost up to Rs.3,000 for a tin.

We need energetic campaigns on reducing the noise levels of the engine-driven country boats, with simple technical interventions, as well as stopping gill net use. More dolphins die trapped by nets than are poached. So it is as critical to address these issues. Over fishing is making us dependent on chemical preservative laced fish from Andhra Pradesh and other states. It is driving one of our greatest resources and attractions – the dolphin to extinction.

Non-government groups and the government must partner to ensure all three areas of human-dolphin conflict are eased. In addition, the Government of Assam must become an innovator – let it adopt the dolphin as its state "river" mammal, sending a clear signal out to all. And let it designate the areas where the dolphins live, for these are outside national parks and sanctuaries, as dolphin protection zones with curbs on fishing and disturbing human interventions yet allowing non-harmful human activities.

We would do well to be reminded that dolphin conservation is also profitable: in some parts of the world, companies charge a minimum of $75 per person to enable humans to come into contact with ocean dolphins, look at them, swim with them and even touch them. It is said to be an enriching spiritual and gentle experience. Why can't we do that in Assam?

The dolphin's magnificent leap out of water must remain a source of joy for our children and future generations.

(Sanjoy Hazarika writes extensively on India's northeast. He can be reached on [email protected])