Bihar: Ganges river dolphins trapped in fishnets and false beliefs

As the population of the Ganges river dolphins declined alarmingly, a 60-kilometre stretch along the river in Bihar's Bhagalpur district was notified as Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in 1991. But, three decades later, the endangered species continues to face the threat of extinction and in the last six months three dolphins were found dead in the sanctuary.

Rahul JhaRahul Jha   17 Oct 2022 1:49 PM GMT

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Bihar: Ganges river dolphins trapped in fishnets and false beliefs

It is the third such death of the protected species in the past six months within the limits of the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in Bhagalpur. Photo: Arvind Mishra

Bhagalpur, Bihar

On September 13, a Ganges river dolphin was found floating on the surface of the river, dead with a fishnet tangled around its nose.

The death of the freshwater dolphin, which has been categorised as 'endangered', has set the alarm bells ringing. It is the third such death of the protected species in the past six months within the limits of the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in Bhagalpur district of Bihar. This protected sanctuary, spread across 60 kilometres of the Ganges, was notified in 1991 for the conservation of the endangered Ganges river water dolphins.

"I saw the dead susu [local name for the freshwater dolphin because of the sound it makes] being taken away by the forest officials for a post-mortem. There was a similar death of another dolphin in March. It was found dead with a plastic rope hanging out of its mouth. Till now nobody has been punished for these deaths," Chandan Majhi, a 52-year-old resident of Gopalpur village, told Gaon Connection.

These dolphin deaths are a cause for concern because the Ganges river dolphin is on the verge of extinction.

Worldwide, only 2,500-3,000 Ganges river dolphins are left in the wild, as noted in a 2019 briefing document of the World Wide Fund (WWF). Of these, about 1,150 such dolphins are found in Bihar, as noted by the Zoological Survey of India in 2019.

"There are only 1,150 dolphins left in Bihar's rivers and their numbers are on a constant decline," Sunil Chaudhary, a professor in the Department of Botany of the Tilka Majhi Bhagalpur University told Gaon Connection. The university, along with the Wildlife Institute of India partnered with the Zoological Survey of India in the surveying for the aquatic census in 2019.

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Deepak Kumar, a conservator with the Wildlife Institute of India, who works towards protection of the aquatic species in the dolphin sanctuary, said that most of the deaths of the dolphins were caused by fishnets.

"Fishers spread the net to trap smaller fishes but often the dolphins get entangled and die after a violent struggle," Kumar told Gaon Connection.

"Also, some fishers hunt dolphins for their oil which is used to attract smaller fishes as bait. Also, there is a popular myth that the susu oil can provide relief from arthritis pain. These factors also contribute to the dolphins' deaths," he added.

State officials are worried about the recent deaths of the freshwater dolphin. "As many as six meetings of the top most officials have been held. There's no way to tell the exact number of the dolphins in the sanctuary [Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary], but around 300 is considered to be the official count in the sanctuary," Sanjay Kumar, the social media executive of the Department of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Bihar government, told Gaon Connection.

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On September 13, a Ganges river dolphin was found floating on the surface of the river, dead with a fishnet tangled around its nose. Photo: Arvind Mishra

India's national aquatic animal under threat

This endangered species is found in the rivers of the Indo-Gangetic plains which also includes the rivers in Nepal and Bangladesh. The Ganges river dolphin is blind and relies on sound waves in the water to navigate, detect prey and communicate.

According to WWF, the Ganges river dolphins are vital to the riverine ecosystem. "Ganges River Dolphins, often called the 'Tigers of the Ganges', are an indicator species, which have the same role in a river ecosystem as a tiger does in a forest," WWF mentioned.

Arvind Mishra, a Bhagalpur-based environmentalist, told Gaon Connection that extracts from dolphins are believed to be aphrodisiacs which is one of the biggest reasons they are hunted.

"People believe that consuming parts of dolphins will enhance their sex drive. It is tragic that such beliefs are resulting in the extinction of the species which the human race is supposed to share the planet with," Mishra said.

"These dolphins are blind. They use echolocation to navigate and hunt for prey, and sometimes they enter the waters of the smaller rivers. Irrigation often lowers the water levels of these rivers and the dolphins struggle to navigate through the shallow waters. This results in them being caught by the locals or they die of loss of access to their food [smaller fishes],' he added.

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As mentioned in the Conservation Action Plan for the Gangetic Dolphin 2010-2020 published by the erstwhile Union Ministry of Environment & Forest, the use of nylon monofilament fishing gillnets in rivers having dolphin population should be banned.

"Use of fishing nets made up of mosquito netting material (Hindi - 'Kapda jal') should also be banned as it collects small fish which serve as food for dolphins, and fetch very little or no income to fishermen," it added.

'Dolphin Mitras' need support

Kumar, the conservator working to protect dolphins at the sanctuary, told Gaon Connection that unless the government or the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) launch awareness campaigns and debunk the myths associated with dolphins, it will be hard to protect the endangered species.

"The government has appointed volunteers from the local community and has titled them as Dolphin Mitra. They ensure that poachers or fishers don't trap dolphins. But, unless the people are made aware of these unfounded myths, none of these things will save dolphins," he said.

Meanwhile, when Gaon Connection talked to one of the 'dolphin mitra', it was learnt that these government-appointed volunteers are often threatened by fishers.

"We are working very efficiently to remove fishnets from the sanctuary but a lot more efforts are needed by the government in the rural areas. We alone cannot deal with the villagers. In the Mahadev ghat area, the fishers threaten to kill us. Unless the government dedicates more resources for dolphin conservation, not much can be done," Sahdev, a Dolphin Mitra, said.

Also Read: Cattle rearers in Rajasthan help conserve critically endangered Great Indian bustard

Overfishing of the river caused the drop in the population of the Yangtze river dolphins. Photo: Rahul Kumar Gaurav

Lessons from China's Yangtze river

According to WWF, there are only five existing species of river dolphins left in the world today and they are all endangered or critically endangered. These species include the Ganges river dolphins, the Amazon river dolphins, the Indus river dolphins, the Irrawaddy river dolphins, and the Mekong river dolphins.

The Yangtze river dolphin is considered to be critically endangered and possibly extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"The Yangtze River dolphin or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) was an obligate river dolphin endemic to the middle-lower Yangtze River [Changjiang] drainage and the neighbouring Qiantang River in eastern China," the IUCN mentions in its notes on the species.

"The baiji experienced a precipitous population decline throughout the late twentieth century: there were thought to be about 400 individuals in the population in 1980 but only 13 were counted in 1997-1999. The primary factor driving this decline was probably unsustainable by-catch in local fisheries, particularly rolling hook long-lines, together with wider-scale habitat degradation," it states.

Gopal Prasad, a Patna-based environmentalist, cautioned that the same could be the fate for the Ganges river dolphin unless the government takes immediate measures.

"Overfishing of the river caused the drop in the population of the Yangtze river dolphins. These river dolphins only inhabit the rivers where the water is pure and bereft of pollutants. Their presence is a blessing to human beings too. But illegal mining and fishing is destroying the ecosystem, and it is very much possible that Bihar's dolphins will witness a similar fate as that of the baiji dolphins in China," Prasad told Gaon Connection.

Also, Arvind Mishra, a Patna-based environmentalist remarked that the Union government's plans to link rivers is highly detrimental to the conservation of the last remaining dolphins in Bihar.

"Plans to link rivers like Bagmati and Burhi Gandak, Kosi and Ganga, Kosi and Mechi are all endangering the dolphins. Not only will these linking projects hamper the flow of the rivers' water but the movement of motor boats and ferries will cause these dolphins to lose track of their habitat. It is because the noise pollution from the motors will disturb the dolphins' echolocation ability," Mishra told Gaon Connection.

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