Finally, good news for endangered Gangetic dolphins
Good news on the wildlife front is so rare these days that it is not believed in the first instance. Perhaps, that’s why when the population of the endangered Gangetic river dolphin was found to have grown to 223 in November 2011 from about 175 during the previous year at the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary (VGDS), the country’s only river dolphin sanctuary in Bhagalpur district of Bihar; a double-check was thought necessary. The survey carried out by the Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Centre (VBREC), a wing of Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University (TMBU), had reruns in February and June of 2012. The surveys which used the unique double observer method were carried out both upstream and downstream of the river to minimise chances of error. The final result of three surveys reported presence of at least 238 dolphins (15 more than what the first survey had revealed) in a stretch of 50 km of the Ganga from Sultanganj to Kahalgoan, which comes under Bhagalpur district.
For Sunil Kumar Choudhary, a professor of botany at TMBU who works as the coordinator of VBREC and had also headed the teams which carried out these surveys; it was a defining moment of his life. The jump in the number of the aquatic mammals reinforced his conviction that Gangetic dolphins can survive in this sanctuary.
Choudhary and his team have worked tirelessly in this aquatic sanctuary for the past 14 years. The VBREC was formed in 2000 for the conservation of the cetacean population at VGDS. Choudhary used his unique human angle approach to save dying dolphins here. “We mostly understood the fishermen’s problems and tried to solve them. If you can solve these, dolphins will automatically survive,” he says. Before embarking on his conservation efforts, he gave himself to an intense study of local fishing patterns and their history. His research revealed how traumatised was the past of the fishing community here.
Reign of jal zamindars
In 1991, the stretch of the Ganga from Sultanganj to Kahalgaon was notified as VGDS. The stretch, known for its sizeable fish population, had been controlled by ‘panidars’ or ‘jal zamindars’, a class of feudal lords who claimed rights over the river since the time of Mughal kings. Even after independence when zamindari was abolished everywhere else, the panidars here kept ruling this stretch of Ganga with an iron fist. They deployed criminals to collect taxes from the fishermen and others using the river in any other way. Such was their terror that nobody dared to venture in this stretch without their permission. Killing of Gangetic dolphins, locally known as ‘sauns’, was rampant all these years: the fat extracted from the animal is used as bait to catch other fish.
The reign of terror continued till the late 1980s. The Ganga Mukti Andolan was launched in Bhagalpur in 1982 to save the river and free fishermen from the clutches of panidars. The struggle continued till the 1990s when the Bihar government finally abolished the jal zamindari system.
But the killing of dolphins did not abate even after VGDS came into existence. In fact, it became more frequent in the 1990s. Though the sanctuary was created, there was inadequate law-enforcement in the sanctuary areas till the late 1990s. More dolphins were killed for the extraction of fat from the mammal to use as fish bait. Excessive use of nets by the fishermen also endangered the cetacean population here since dolphins need to come to the surface of water to breathe.
The earliest known population surveys of Gangetic dolphins here, carried out by professor RK Sinha of Patna University in 1996 and 1998, revealed shocking figures: 92 and 81 dolphins only. “It was the time when Brian D Smith introduced me to the aquatic mammal at a conference in Patna in 1998,” says Choudhary. An authority on the river dolphin, Smith is now director Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asian Freshwater and Coastal Cetacean Programme. While dolphins were a new subject for this teacher of botany, conservation was not. He was also actively involved in nature conservation in the adjoining parts of Bhagalpur. He was also actively involved in the struggle for the setting-up of Udhwa bird sanctuary.
A sanctuary on paper
When Choudhary arrived here, the sanctuary existed only on paper. An overwhelming majority of people and fishermen were unaware of the existence of any dolphin sanctuary in Bhagalpur. Soon, another conservationist, Subhasish Dey, joined him in his effort. A few more people also joined VBREC.
A ground-level assessment of the situation revealed the volatility of it. Even after abolishment of the infamous panidari system, fishermen were not free. The same criminals who worked for panidars earlier had come to occupy the stretch where their writ was the rule of law. The forest department was mute to the development and such was the fear of the new mafiosi of the river water that forest officials hardly patrolled the sanctuary areas.
After years of neglect, the sanctuary faced serious threat from excessive human intervention, overfishing with the use of nets of mesh size as small as 2 mm as well as construction of dams, barrages, and above all, river pollution. In the first two years (1999-2001), Choudhary realised the solution to this problem lay in sensitising fishermen. However, talking to them was an uphill task since the 8,000-strong fishing community here saw this conservationist as a threat to their livelihood. The VBREC team also faced continuous threat from the local criminals who now controlled the river stretch.
“It took us almost seven years to tell the fishermen that we had come there for conservation of Gangetic dolphins and not taking away their livelihood,” says Dey. But somehow the two things were interlinked. After years of overfishing, when the river showed signs of exhaustion in dwindling catches, the fishing community started using nylon nets with smaller mesh size to exploit the aquatic life further. Overfishing also led to the decline of prey base (small fish) of the dolphin. So, in a way, dolphins and fishermen started competing for the fish. The incidence of dolphins getting trapped in nylon fishing nets increased. Because they could not dive for breathing, the dolphins drowned in the net and died.
Awareness saves the day
In 2000, Choudhary decided to undertake a padyatra to create awareness among fishermen and people living on the banks of the river. Here help from a local theatre group, Paridhi, came as godsend. Choudhary wrote the script for a play which was played at various places by Paridhi members to spread awareness among the community about the essentiality of dolphins to their own existence. “Both, the dolphins and humans need healthy river for their sustenance. Hence, the protection of dolphins and the welfare of the people are two sides of the same coin, and are very much interrelated,” Choudhary says. During the three-day padyatra, the theatre group performed the half-an-hour play in Angika (a local language of historical importance) at different halts.
In 2001, the Patna high court took a suo motu notice of the plight of the sanctuary and directed both the union and Bihar governments to allocate funds to support dolphin conservation. After the court’s rap, the policymakers started taking the issue a bit more seriously. The wildlife board of Bihar only woke up three years later in 2004 to form a management committee for the sanctuary.
The forest department cold-shouldered VBREC through it all. “The department did not have the knowledge needed for conservation efforts at that point of time,” Choudhary says. When he started the awareness campaign, the cooperation from the forest department was nil. “They looked at VBREC team as adversaries as we had encroached on their area of expertise,” recounts Dey. With the help of senior department officials who acknowledged the problem and allowed Choudhary to step in, slight changes were made in the awareness campaign to include and sentisise forest department employees too. BC Nayak, the then conservator of forests, Bhagalpur, was the first government officer who teamed up with Choudhary to change the situation.
SK Singh, regional chief conservator of forest, Bhagalpur range, followed it up. “We have limited resources and multiple activities to take up in the conservation efforts in Bhagalpur. Prof Choudhary’s awareness programme for our officials was of great help in letting us know where we need to do more work,” Singh says. He adds that there has been a perceptible change in the attitude of people and fishermen towards dolphin conservation. “Bhagalpur is known as the ‘city of silk’. Now people take pride in telling others that the city is also known for conservation of dolphins.”
“Recently, VBREC embarked on a joint patrolling of the river stretch with the department. We have made them dolphin-friendly,” Choudhary says.
He regrets the fact that Gangetic dolphins fall behind tigers in the race for national attention despite sharing similarities of status. “Dolphins are tigers of the aquatic food chain. The tiger is the apex predator in the food chain of the jungle. In the same way, dolphins are the top predator in the food chain of Gangetic water. Sadly, despite being the national aquatic animal of India and more endangered than tigers, the Gangetic dolphin is not part of the nation’s collective consciousness,” he rues.
So much so that VGDS does not have a vet for the cetaceans even after 21 years of existence. “There is a situation when a dolphin dies. How do we ascertain the cause of death? A post-mortem cannot be done without a specialised veterinary doctor,” Choudhary says.
Other than working at the ground level, Choudhary wrote extensively in various international journals to increase awareness about the issue at another level. He was given Fulbright scholarship by the US state department to study about dolphins. The Michigan university has been collaborating with the VBREC to study the behavioural pattern of the aquatic mammal ever since. In June 2012, a research student from Nottingham University of the UK came here to study the diving patterns of dolphins.
Struggle far from over
Choudhary says there has never been dearth of at least one thing in his 14 years at VGDS: problems. The latest one is the severest of them all, he concedes. Local criminals who lost their regular income due to the existence of dolphin sanctuary have now collaborated with fishermen in Kahalgaon to raise a cry for denotification of VGDS. These fishermen maintain the move will have a positive impact on their livelihood as they would be able to freely access the river’s resources. “This is the biggest headache so far. Now, I am redesigning conservation efforts to meet this challenge,” Choudhary says.
Ray of hope
However small, some steps are finally being taken. Recently, the Bihar government has made efforts towards the conservation of Gangetic dolphins. “The state government has decided to celebrate October 5 as the Dolphin Day,” said chief wildlife warden DK Shukla. Second, a national dolphin research centre, the first in the country, is most likely to be set up in Patna. The state government is awaiting final nod of the planning commission in this regard. Choudhary says that these are positive steps. However, questions remain. “Why research centre in Patna, when you have a sanctuary in Bhagalpur where the number of dolphins in the recent years has increased?” he rues.