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Dolphin, Dolphin; Wherefore Art Thou?

The Dolphin Resurgence in Pakistan

Known locally as bhulan or bhulan machi (long-lipped fish), the dolphins of the Indus River are one of the world’s most endangered cetaceans and have such small eyes that scientists have pronounced them “functionally blind.” These fascinating creatures are a rarity only found in the Indus River system in South Asia. Once a united country, India and Pakistan were partitioned into two states in 1947. Consequently, the Indus River was divided too, and with it, the fate of the Indus River Dolphins. 

The Indus River Water Treaty, brokered by the World Bank in 1960, is a water distribution treaty between India and Pakistan regarding control of the water of the Indus River and its tributaries. The Treaty gave India control of “eastern” rivers (the Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej) while Pakistan gained three “western” rivers (the Indus, Jhenab and Chelum). This meant that Pakistan obtained the Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS) which starts in Khyber Patunkhawa, runs to Punjab in the center, and ends in Sindh in the south.

The treaty has had two major consequences for the Indus River Dolphins. First, since India has the rights to the upstream rivers of Ravi and the Sutlej, all of the water is utilized within India and the rivers are usually dry by the time they reach Pakistan. Second, most Pakistani water resources are located in the west, but agricultural areas that depend on irrigation are in the east. This led to the construction of massive link canals to transfer water from the west to the east to irrigate agricultural lands south of the Ravi and Sutlej. Water diversion projects have been on the rise, and capacities of existing canals have expanded even as river discharge has declined. 

The historical range of the Indus dolphins has been fragmented into 17 river sections by these barrages. According to dolphin sightings and interview surveys, dolphins now persist in six sections and are of unknown status in the Sutlej River on the India-Pakistan border. These six subpopulations consist of five subpopulations in the Indus mainstream bounded by the Chashma, Taunsa, Panjnad, Guddu, Sukkur and Kotri Barrages, and one in Beas River in India. Prior to construction during the British colonial period, in the middle of the 19th century, dolphins “occurred in 3500km of the Indus River system”. The linear extent of their occurrence is now roughly 1000 km, and 99% of the dolphin population lives in only 690 km of the river. This means they fill 20% of their original range.

In 2011, the subspecies was estimated to consist of 1450 individuals. Many other anthropogenic factors are also causing population declines. One of the main threats to their survival is entanglement in fishing gear from local fishermen, particularly gillnets and longlines. Instruments such as gillnets are nonselective, which means that non-targeted marine life, like dolphins, end up getting captured and killed. Another threat is habitat degradation and destruction due to human activities such as dredging and water withdrawals. Dams and irrigation canals prevent Indus River dolphins from moving upstream. This can act to separate populations from each other. Noise, specifically of the underwater variant from industry and vessels, interferes with the dolphins’ ability to communicate and echolocate. This pollution can also result in temporary or permanent hearing loss if it is loud enough. Finally, chemical contaminants enter the Indus river through wastewater discharge from agricultural and industrial processes. Due to their being at the top of the food chain and having long lifespans, the dolphins amass chemicals in their body, harming their immune and reproductive systems. Chemicals can also kill other fish, resulting in less available food for the dolphins. 

So how exactly has Pakistan managed to increase its river dolphin population? According to a 2017 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report, the resurgence owes a lot to successful community-based conservation efforts. The WWF survey estimated that there were 1,816 Indus River dolphins in Pakistan, a 50% increase since WWF’s first survey in 2001 when it looked like the species was trending toward extinction. The WWF in Pakistan led a collaborative approach to save the species, bringing together research, effective law enforcement, and community engagement. The Sindh Wildlife Department and WWF-Pakistan have jointly run a dolphin rescue program beginning in 1992 and have saved 131 dolphins from being stranded in irrigation canals. A 24-hour phone helpline and a dolphin monitoring network in collaboration with local communities have been created. The dolphin monitoring network includes representatives of Sindh Wildlife Department, Sindh Irrigation Department, Sindh Forest Department, Sindh Fisheries Department, Sindh Environmental Protection Agency and local community activists who monitor the Indus River as well as adjacent canals and tributaries. 

Hammad Naqi Khan, Director General of WWF-Pakistan, remarked that active participation of communities along the river was crucial to the efforts to save the dolphins. Uzma Khan, global river dolphins coordinator for the WWF, credits the local fishing community particularly for being trained to release the dolphins back to the river in case of accidental entanglements or canal entrapments. The majority of the blind dolphins are found in the Guddu to Sukkur in the Sindh province barrage stretch of 200 km, which has been declared a dolphin reserve by the provincial government. Taj Mohammad Sheikh, deputy conservator of the Sindh wildlife department, expressed that chances of dolphins accidentally dying in winter were high due to water levels in the Indus river being low and the possibility of the dolphins entering adjoining canals in search of food and getting entangled in the nets of local fishermen. To disincentivize this, those responsible for an accidental death could be fined 50,000 rupees ($315.70). Now in 2020, the most recent WWF survey pegs the number of Indus dolphins at 1,987. 

The modern people of Sindh and Punjab provinces are considered descendants of the sophisticated Harappa civilization, and they see the dolphin as part of this heritage. The fishermen there have an origin story for the species. According to the legend, a woman presents butter and milk to the mystic patron of the river and she is able to cross the river safely when the waters part. Once, she fails to give an appropriate offering, and the river spirit changes her into a dolphin. Fisherman Gul Mohammed sees the dolphin as a lifelong companion, as he saw his first one when he was only ten years old. Although he earns money from giving boat rides to tourists and visitors to the Lab-e-Mehran park hoping to glimpse the dolphin, he also sees the dolphins as competitors who eat  fish that support his livelihood. Until the 1970s when hunting was banned, fishing communities used to hunt the dolphins for food and blubber to mix with oil as coating for their boats. Khadim Hussain, representative of a fisherman advocacy group in Taunsa in Punjab province, says, “the dolphin is a friend to humans.” It doesn’t harm fisherfolk and swims with them as they are on their boats. 

However, Uzma warns of constant challenges posed to the blind dolphin and states that the dolphins remain in just one stretch of the Indus river. The rescue process itself is not easy. Marine animals are very sensitive to loud sounds and human presence, and when being evacuated, they can suffer from high blood pressure. The small rescue team also has to face limited funding and outdated equipment, and therefore has to invest their own resources. They are low in resources but filled with spirit. Nazir Mirani, a wildlife ranger and son of a fisherman, worked with the Sindh Wildlife Department for thirty years and offered the department advice from his knowledge accumulated on the water. 

Tracking the dolphins after they’ve been rescued is critical. WWF proposed placing satellite tags to track their movements, discover more about their biology, and inform conservation efforts. One other solution is planting ‘pingers’ near the canal openings to make ting ting sounds, inaudible to humans but audible to dolphins, which the animals avoid. The dolphins of the Indus River do face great challenges. Their survival depends not only on direct conservation efforts but also protection of their environment against pollution, encroachment by humans, and degradation. Dolphins serve as important environmental checks because they are at the top of the food chain. If they flourish, the rest of the food chain will too. Rescuers like Mirani see this as their civic duty and are eager to ensure the dolphin does not suffer the same fate as the gharial, a crocodile that went extinct. Indeed these dolphins are remnants of an ancient culture and should be preserved for future generations as a symbol of their heritage. 




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