Dolphins are one of the world's most endangered mammals
On August 25, exactly at 8:30am, Sindh Wildlife officer Adnan Hamid’s mobile phone started ringing incessantly. The person on the call wanted to tell Hamid about something terrible he had witnessed. Four men had murdered an endangered blind Indus dolphin near the Ghotki Feeder Canal.
A team was immediately dispatched to the site and sure enough, a dead dolphin was found. “The post-mortem report of the animal revealed that she was pregnant,” Hamid told SAMAA Digital.
“According to our investigation, around five fishermen pulled the dolphin out of the water near Korai Wah, stabbed it with an axe multiple times, and threw the body into the water,” Hamid said.
The 25-year-old female dolphin was approximately 7.2 feet long. She appears to have lost her way from the Punjab and been ensnared in a fishing net downstream.
The suspects had long fled the scene but two of the men have been identified as Naveed Mirani and Munawwar Mirani. The police are on the lookout for them.
Indus Dolphin Case Update:— SindhWildlife (@sindhwildlife) August 27, 2021
Honourable Trial Court of District & Sessions Judge Sukkur directed for issuance of “Bailable warrants of arrest” of the culprits who caused mortality of Indus Dolphin by installing “Fixed Engine” for fishing at Korai Wah of Ghotki feeder canal 1/3 pic.twitter.com/Gi2dFGXc7u
An FIR has been registered at the Wildlife Police Station, Sukkur, under sections 19A (hunting, shooting, killing, injuring, trapping, snaring, and poisoning of wildlife in the protected area and wildlife habitat of an animal) and Section 21 (no one shall hunt, kill, trap and capture, or smuggle, possess, and trade in wildlife such as mammals, birds, and reptiles) of the Sindh Wildlife Protection, Preservation, Conservation, and Management Act, 2020.
“Under the law, the culprits will be punished to at least five years in jail and will have to pay a fine of Rs250,000,” the deputy officer said.
The Sindh Wildlife Department has also filed a petition and as a result a Sukkur district and sessions court has instructed the police to arrest the suspects and present them on September 9 along with a police challan.
The blind Indus dolphin is one of the world’s most threatened mammals and has been officially declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN.
Locally known as bhulan, the animals are one of only four freshwater dolphin species left on Earth. The dolphin has been living in the River Indus for thousands of years. Its colors, which range from brown, a range of grays, or rarely, a dusky pink, help the animal blend into the sediment-laden waters.
Locally known as bhulan, the animals are one of only four freshwater dolphin species left on Earth
According to Wildlife Conservator Javed Mahar, there are approximately 2,000 dolphins in Pakistan found in the River Indus from Thatta to Mianwali. Of these, around 1,400 are in Sindh.
Here is a breakdown of the 1,000km long River Indus stretch where the dolphins live:
Artwork by Obair Khan
The highest density of dolphins has been recorded in between the Sukkur and Guddu barrages where an estimated 1,000 animals are situated. This is why this 190km long stretch was declared a protected area by the government back in the 1970s.
“This is the sole protected area Pakistan has for the unique species,” Uzma Khan, Asia Coordinator of the WWF river dolphin initiative, told SAMAA Digital.
Back when the river was not divided by barrages, dams, and canals, the Guddu and Sukkur barrages provided the best waters to the mammals. “The water was unpolluted and flowed upstream. Only contractual sustainable fishing was allowed in the River Indus, providing a safe space to the animals,” Javed Mahar said.
This changed when in the 1970s, contract fishing was replaced by fishing licenses. “Millions of licenses were issued without any substantial rules or regulations to not just fishermen but everyone who wanted them.”
This meant that the River Indus, the blind dolphin’s only habitat, was open to fishing for everyone. “Not just commercial fishermen, but locals also started heading to the waters to make a living,” Mahar explained. “Most of them were not even aware of the professional methods of fishing, resulting in the pollution and poisoning of the river.”
The dolphin is not an edible animal. So when one speaks of fishing, this doesn’t literally mean catching the dolphins.
“If you have seen a dolphin, you would know it jumps out of the water and then goes back inside. The animal does this to breathe,” WWF’s Khan explained. Due to overfishing, the dolphins keep getting stuck in fishing nets. “Once a dolphin is stuck, it will literally take seconds to die because it can’t breathe underwater for long.”
According to a recent study, the biggest reason for the mortality of dolphins is fishing nets, which has also become a global concern today.
In the last two years, the Sindh Wildlife Department has rescued 30 dolphins from the River Indus. Most of them were stranded or lost. More than half of them died before they were released back into the water.
WWF expert Uzma Khan has emphasized that Pakistan has a huge responsibility when it comes to the protection, conservation, and preservation of Indus dolphins.
“There are only six species of dolphins across the globe,” she revealed. “Indus dolphin is one of the most unique of these species, only found in Pakistan.”
In the last 20 years, the range of River Indus has declined by 80%. This is a clear indication of the danger the mammals are in. Range decline refers to a decline in the habitat of dolphins.
“If we don’t take steps to protect dolphins today, they will soon become extinct.”
Khan stressed that one of the most important ways to preserve these animals was to build protected areas for them. “Punjab has a population of around 450 dolphins but doesn’t have a single protected area.”
It is vital to rigorously develop areas where fishing is off-limits. These spaces are called reservoirs that supplement fish. The best part about aquatic animals is that their reproduction rate is quick and their population increases rapidly.
Conservator Javed Mahar, on the other hand, pointed out that strict enforcement of the law is extremely necessary. “What is the use of laws on paper when they are not implemented?” he asked.
Animal organisations and the government should invest more in the research on dolphins too, he added. “We need to understand their behaviors and genetic changes to protect them in a better way.”
The mammals are the top predator in the River Indus. The presence of an animal on the top of the food chain indicates the health of the ecosystem.
In this case, dolphins keep a check on the population of other fish in the river, making sure it’s neither over-, nor under-populated. Apart from that, dolphins contribute to eco-tourism of a country.
“You have an animal in the country that is found nowhere else in the world,” Khan said. “You can use this to sustainably earn money.” Dolphin watching and tours are one way to do that.
This won’t just benefit the animals but also the local communities and help them earn a livelihood through this.