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River dolphins gasp for life

By Aarti Dhar

Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

A dead dolphin being brought out of the Brahmaputra by residents of Guwahati.

NEW DELHI SEPT. 5. The first-ever survey of the Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) has estimated their population between 1,800 and 2,000 in seven States. The survey, carried out by the World Wide Fund for Nature-India, identified several river stretches as ideal habitats for the species, and hence for priority conservation action.

Commonly known as susu, the Ganges Dolphin is one of the four species of freshwater dolphins in the world. It is found in the Brahmaputra-Meghna river systems in endemic numbers. Once found in their thousands along the stretch, their number came down abysmally during the last century owing to habitat fragmentation by dams and barrages, indiscriminate fishing and pollution. Though dolphins enjoy protection nationally and internationally, their numbers continue to decline in the absence of coordinated conservation planning, lack of awareness, continuing development pressures and almost no protected areas for them, the survey points out.

The WWF-India adopted the Ganges River Dolphin as a species of special concern and initiated the Ganges River Dolphin Conservation programme in 1997, under which the survey was conducted along the Ganga in Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. More than 20 rivers, including the Upper Ganga (Uttar Pradesh), the Chambal (Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), the Ghagra and the Gandak (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), the Sone and the Kosi (Bihar), the Brahmaputra (Arunachal Pradesh) and the Kulsi (Assam), were surveyed.

Though the existence of these dolphins has been known from ancient times, they were first mentioned in 1879 in a report by John Anderson. They were referred to as khuk-abi in the Babar Nama and oil produced from their fat was used for lighting. Fishermen still regard susu as the vahana (vehicle) of the Ganga.

In the last century, thousands of freshwater dolphins could be found in the navigable stretches of rivers. Today, they are rarely found in most tributaries of the Ganges, and in some stretches they are virtually extinct.

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