The population of the Blind Indus Dolphin has risen
The rise of the ‘Daku Raj‘ (bandit era) in Sindh in the 1980s and afterwards along the Indus River belt forced native fishermen and wildlife poaching communities to flee. But while the dakus didn’t do anything for the people, their presence had an effect on the population of the endangered Blind Indus Dolphin.
Fresh survey figures reveal that there is a constant increase in the endangered Indus Blind Dolphins population, which experts attribute to reduced poaching along with other conservation efforts in the habitat.
The Sindh Wildlife Department, the custodian of the Blind Indus Dolphins, conducted a fresh population survey from April 8 to 12 at the Guddu and Sukkur barrage reserves. According to the survey, the number of dolphins has risen to 1,419. There were only 132 dolphins found in the first survey conducted in 1972.
The Indus River dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor), locally known as ‘bulhan’, is native to the Indus River in Pakistan. The freshwater cetacean is classified as ‘endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. It is one of the world’s rarest mammals and the second most endangered freshwater river dolphin after the Yangtze River dolphin.
The dolphins are one of only four river dolphin species and subspecies in the world that spend their entire lives in freshwater. Functionally blind, the species relies on echolocation to navigate, communicate and hunt prey, including prawns, catfish and carp.
The 200-kilometere-long Guddu-Sukkur barrages reserve is an internationally recognized Ramsar site.
Rise of the dakus
In Sindh, the rise of the ‘daku raj’ began in the 1980s where dacoits ruled the kutcha areas (riverbed) of the Indus River between the Guddu and Sukkur Barrages. There were many gangs in the kutcha during the period that controlled the deeply forested river islands in today’s Ghotki, Kashmore, Shikarpur and Sukkur districts.
Bandits were involved in kidnappings for ransom and highway robberies. In order to get ransom money they kidnapped people from the pacca areas and brought them into the vast and complicated kutcha forests to take shelter.
They were so powerful that the police avoided going inside kutcha forests to take action against them. Some operations by law enforcers turned into fierce gun battles that lasted for days. The bandits became a symbol of terror.
Prior to the daku raj, there were various communities, including fishermen, living along the riverbed. With the arrival of the dakus in the kutcha, the fishing community became vulnerable and fled both the profession and the area and migrated towards the safer pucca areas.
According to Javed Mahar, chief conservator at the Sindh Wildlife Department and in-charge of the survey, due to the law and order situation in the kutcha areas, fishermen migrated to pucca areas.
“One Jhabir community and its sub-castes used to prey on the Blind Indus Dolphin. Jhabirs would eat them, sell them and use their fat for various purposes. With the departure of poachers, hunting has stopped,” Mahar told SAMAA Digital.
It is widely believed that the Jhabir community are the descendants of Moriro Meerbahar. Fisherman Moriro is a character of a famous folktale in which he killed a dangerous sea-monster crocodile. The courageous fisherman went into the sea to bring back his dead six brothers who had been swallowed one after one by the dangerous devouring creature.
“In revenge, Jhabirs used to kill many aquatic animals including dolphins until very recently, before they converted to Islam ,” Mahar said. Dolphin meat is considered prohibited (haram) by some Muslims.
The displacement of poaching communities from the Indus River proved to be blessing in disguise for the endangered Blind Indus Dolphins. The species which was once on the brink of extinction is regaining its population.
Meer Akhtar Hussain Talpur, the incharge of the Indus Dolphin Conservation Center in Sukkur, said that 70% of the dolphin’s body consists of fat. “Fat was also used in oil coating the boats,” he added.
He said there are hardly any bandits left in the Indus River belt because of various operations by law enforcers to clear the area, but by-and-large fishing communities have not returned. Nor have the poachers. “As we speak there are no poaching activities here,” Talpur said.
The halt on poaching is not the only factor boosting the dolphin population. The Sindh Wildlife Department has also introduced and implemented a protection law. There are also awareness programmes being run for people to rescue stranded dolphins in canals connected to the barrages.
According to Talpur, since 1992 the wildlife department and fishing communities have rescued 157 dolphins from various canals and released them back in the river.
But Javed Mahar sees recent rising illegal fishing practices as a potential threat to the dolphins.
“Recently, a new fish catching system was introduced. Under this system fishermen are issued cards worth Rs15 each that allow them to catch fish. Thousands of fishermen thronged to the river to catch fish and earn their livelihoods. Since they were too poor to buy nets, they began illegal ways to catch fish. For example they dumped poison in the river to kill the fish. But that is harmful for both the fish and dolphins,” he explained.
According to him, the wildlife department is strictly monitoring the area. It also educates the fishing communities about avoiding these harmful practices.
Indus dolphins live in five sub-populations in the Indus River’s main stem, each separated by irrigation barrages.
According to Mahar, due to the construction of the irrigation system in the Indus River, the number of dolphins declined because of fragmentation of their habitat. Prior to the construction of the barrages, dolphins were found from Attock (the Indus and Kabul rivers’ meeting point in Punjab) to the Indus Delta (where the Indus River flows into the Arabian Sea in Sindh) in an around 1,500km stretch. In the downstream area of the Sukkur Barrage to Kotri Barrage, where there is a shortage of water, there were some dolphins found. But there are no more dolphins in the downstream area of the Kotri Barrage.
According to Mahar, optimum water availability in the downstream Guddu and upstream Sukkur barrages is a major reason for the growth of the dolphin population.
A great threat
But according to fishermen, had poaching continued, it would have harmful for the dolphin.
“Water shortage in the river is a potential threat for the survival of the dolphins. But poaching that once existed was an even bigger threat than water shortage,” said Dr Saen Rakhio Mirani, chairperson of the Sindh Mallah Forum. “Since there has been a halt in poaching, we are seeing an increase in the dolphin population. The return of poaching could turn the scenario around,” he warned.
From 1972 to 2019, figures show that there was increase in the dolphin population most years. Before the April survey, there were 19 surveys held by Sindh Wildlife Department (till the 1980s the department was called the Sindh Wildlife Management Board).
According to their records, 150 dolphins were found in the second survey in 1974. Similarly, 182 were found in 1975, 291 in 1979, 346 in 1980, 381 in 1981, 429 in 1986, 368 in 1989, 387 in 1990, 398 in 1991, 410 in 1992, 426 in 1993, 435 in 1994, 447 in 1995, 458 in 1996, 499 in 1999, 602 in 2001, 808 in 2006 and 918 dolphins were recorded in the 2011 survey.
Cumulative figures from 1972 to 2011 show that there was increase of 20 dolphins per year on average. However, the April survey reveals that from 2011 to 2019 there was an increase of 501 dolphins. That means there was increase of 62 dolphins per year.
Mahar connects the ambitious increasing figures with the increased number of sightings. “It is not a record number but sightings of dolphins were increased during the April survey, which is the season of decreased flow in the Indus River,” he explained.
“Previous surveys were held during the flooding season in July and August. During flooding, there are by-rivers. So sightings become difficult,” he added.
“Due to the decreased flow in the river in April dolphin movement was restricted to certain patches. During this period there are no by-rivers and only one river patch exists. Therefore there were comparatively increased sightings, not the actual number,” Mahar said.
Zulfiqar Kunbhar is a Karachi-based environment journalist. He tweets @ZulfiqarKunbhar