Nepal: Save the Dolphin!

Dispatches / by Gaia Vince /

Misguided hunting, pesticide fishing, and a network of dams threaten the future of a resident mammal in the Ganges.

Nick Pattinson

The mist merges with the murky river that slaps against the sides of our boat. At first, the brown hump that appears and disappears a boat’s length ahead is not immediately identifiable. But as the mist burns off in the weak January sun, we witness the clear arch and leap of not one, but two, rare Gangetic dolphins. It’s a mesmerizing sight and a privilege: There are just 28 dolphins left in Nepal, according to a survey carried out last year, and only four are here in the Karnali River, a tributary of the Ganges.

“There used to be hundreds of them,” says Tej Kumar Shrestha, professor of zoology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, who led the survey and has studied the dolphin extensively over the past 15 years. “Every time I carry out the river survey, I find there are fewer and fewer. In five years’ time, I expect the dolphin will be extinct in Nepal.”

The Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica) is predominantly found in India and Bangladesh, where there are estimated to be around 3,000 in the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Its numbers have crashed by 50 percent over the past decade, and the aquatic mammal is rated as endangered on the IUCN Red List. A subspecies of the dolphin, Platanista gangetica minor, is found in the Indus River in Pakistan, where the creature has been separated from its brethren in India by dams and dried-up rivers for so long — hundreds of years — that physical differences have emerged.

The same may well be true of Nepal’s dolphin, known locally as “susu,” Shrestha says, because the network of barrages built between the eastern Ganges — home of the vast majority of the dolphins — and the western Ganges on the Nepalese-Indian border has separated these two populations for the past half century. “Nobody has done the DNA studies to check whether it is a distinct subspecies,” he says. Shrestha notes “marked differences” even between Nepal’s permanent dolphin residents and the ones that make annual migrations across the western Ganges in India. “The migratory ones,” he says, “are blacker, with a longer snout and a bigger body.”

Every June, during the monsoon rains, migratory dolphins of breeding age (three to 25 years old) journey to the cooler, fast-flowing oxygenated waters of Nepal. Here they breed and hunt in the rejuvenated streams and oxbow lakes before returning south in September. “If they can’t migrate over, they can’t breed — it’s as simple as that,” Shrestha says.

The increasing numbers of barrages and dams for hydropower along the rivers prevent the dolphins’ passage in either direction unless the flood levels are high enough to allow them to swim through. “The government needs to ensure that every barrage has a fish ladder that is wide enough for the 7- to 8-foot dolphins to use,” says Andrew Duncan, a wildlife-management expert who is based in Bardiya National Park, which encompasses a great part of the Karnali River.

Climate change is making the problem worse. The monsoon has been arriving as much as weeks later in recent years, and in more concentrated bursts. The floods are higher - in 2007 as many as 45 dolphins migrated across after the waters completely washed away one major barrage. But the rains are also briefer, draining the streams and pools too soon for the dolphins to return and causing more of them to become stranded, Shrestha says.

Furthermore, increasingly dry winters are leading farmers to divert more of the waters for crop irrigation. Dolphins that take a wrong turn end up stranded in these narrow channels when the waters recede. “The villagers then take their khukri [traditional knife] and chop off its head for food,” Shrestha says.

People also hunt the dolphins for food and to collect their “fish” oil, he says, showing me a gruesome photograph of a dolphin suspended from a tall post by its tail with a bucket beneath it. Last summer Shrestha went to some of the villages bordering the Karnali and distributed bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with “Save the dolphin — it is not a fish.”

“I explained that they are like us — they give birth to live young and they are special,” Shrestha says. He also held one captive for 10 days in an enclosure in an oxbow lake and invited people to visit it. “Thousands came, and from towns more than 100 kilometers away,” he says. “And now the local people there feel that the susu is something special — it is their susu and they want to protect it.”

Hunting is not the only challenge the embattled creature faces. Pollution, overfishing, and the deliberate poisoning of their waters are major hazards. “Villagers fish by emptying an entire can of pesticide into the river and collecting all the dead fish as they rise to the surface,” says Manoj Gautam, who heads Nepal’s branch of Roots and Shoots, the conservation organization set up by Jane Goodall. That poisons the dolphins, too, and it decreases their food supply. As a result, they aren’t fit enough to breed.

Despite a two-year educational campaign and appeals to everyone from community leaders to the police, Gautam’s group has made little progress in its attempts to stop the pesticide fishing. — Most villages regard it as entirely harmless.

In landlocked Nepal, the plight of the dolphin is a particularly poignant example of the peril shared by so many of the country’s remarkable fauna — tiger and rhino populations have also crashed in recent years, as have plenty of other, less A-list animals, including blackbuck antelope, gharial crocodile, and red panda. As with these other endangered animals, it is illegal to kill a dolphin — the penalty is 70,000 rupees ($900) or 10 years’ imprisonment, but it has never been enacted. Shrestha says the police are bribed. “And anyway, there’s no room in the prisons,” he laughs, pointing to the overflow of political prisoners from the past decade’s insurgency.

The political insurgency battered the wildlife as well as the people. Duncan, of Bardiya National Park, says the area was one of the hardest hit by the conflict. He paints a grim picture: endangered creatures such as dolphin, antelope, and gharial crocodiles “slaughtered” by starving people; acres of forest cut down for firewood and timber; the widespread poaching of tigers and rhino. He is campaigning for better patrol facilities for the area, such as speedboats for the park wardens.

Residents are hoping that the new peace, brought by last year’s election of a Maoist government, will allow the country and its animals to recover. As my boat pulls in to the jetty, I realize that the susus I was lucky enough to see may turn out to be the last of Nepal’s resident dolphins.

Originally published January 19, 2009

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