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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Project Dolphin: Why is it important to save a declining river species?

Aquatic life is an indicator of the health of river ecosystems. As the Gangetic dolphin is at the top of the food chain, protecting the species and its habitat will ensure conservation of aquatic lives of the river.

Written by Harikishan Sharma | New Delhi | Updated: September 6, 2020 10:13:36 am
Modi said in his speech that Project Dolphin will be on the lines of Project Tiger, which has helped increase the tiger population.

In his Independence Day Speech this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the government’s plan to launch a Project Dolphin. The proposed project is aimed at saving both river and marine dolphins.

What will Project Dolphin do?

Modi said in his speech that Project Dolphin will be on the lines of Project Tiger, which has helped increase the tiger population. Such an initiative got in-principle approval in December last year itself, at the first meeting of the National Ganga Council (NGC), headed by the Prime Minister. “Special Conservation program needs to be taken up for Gangetic Dolphin which is national aquatic animal and also indicator species for the river Ganga spread over several states,” state the minutes of meeting.

So far, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), which implements the government’s flagship scheme Namami Gange, has been taking some initiatives for saving dolphins. Now, Project Dolphin is expected to be implemented by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

What is the Gangetic dolphin?

The Gangetic river system is home to a vast variety of aquatic life, including the Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica). The Gangetic dolphin is one of five species of river dolphin found around the world. It is found mainly in the Indian subcontinent, particularly in Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Karnaphuli-Sangu river systems.

The Conservation Action Plan for the Ganges River Dolphin, 2010-2020, describes male dolphins as being about 2-2.2 metres long and females as a little longer at 2.4-2.6 m. An adult dolphin could weigh between 70 kg and 90 kg. The breeding season of the Gangetic dolphin extends from January to June. They feed on several species of fishes, invertebrates etc.

Why is it important to save dolphins?

There was a time when Gangetic dolphins could be spotted in the Ganga at several places, from its delta in the Bay of Bengal to upstream in the Himalayan foothills. It was also found in the Ganga’s tributaries. Some experts have reported that during the 19th century, dolphins were seen in the Yamuna up to as far as Delhi. However, the construction of dams and barrages, and increasing pollution have led to a decline in the population of aquatic animals in the rivers in general and of dolphins in particular.

Aquatic life is an indicator of the health of river ecosystems. As the Gangetic dolphin is at the top of the food chain, protecting the species and its habitat will ensure conservation of aquatic lives of the river.

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Have other governments used aquatic life as an indicator of the health of a river system?

Globally, there have been such examples. For instance, the Rhine Action Plan (1987) of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR) — representing Switzerland, France, Germany, Luxemburg and the Netherlands — brought back the salmon. The return of the migratory fish is taken as an indicator of the river’s improved health.

Salmon used to migrate from the North Sea to the Rhine every year and reproduce, but this stopped when pollution increased in the river. After a chemical accident in 1986 that caused the death of fish and microorganisms, the Action Plan was launched. This led to improvement in the quality of the river water, and the salmons began to return.

“While the salmon was considered lost in the Rhine in 1958, today several hundred salmon from the North Sea return to the accessible tributaries of the Rhine every year and reproduce naturally there,” says Assessment Rhine 2020, and ICPR report.

How many Gangetic dolphins remain?

While no exact count is available, various estimates suggest that the Gangetic dolphin population in India could be about 2,500-3,000. However, Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Babul Supriyo had told Lok Sabha last year that there were about 1,272 dolphins in Uttar Pradesh and 962 in Assam.

Increasing pollution in the Ganga has brought down the number over the years.

What has been done to save Gangetic dolphins so far?

Although efforts to save them were started in the mid-1980s, but the estimates suggest the numbers have not risen as a result. The Gangetic dolphin remains listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

WILDLIFE ACT PROTECTION: After the launch of Ganga Action Plan in 1985, the government on November 24, 1986 included Gangetic dolphins in the First Schedule of the Indian Wildlife (Protection), Act 1972. This was aimed at checking hunting and providing conservation facilities such as wildlife sanctuaries. For instance, Vikramshila Ganges Dolphin Sanctuary was established in Bihar under this Act.

CONSERVATION PLAN: The government also prepared The Conservation Action Plan for the Ganges River Dolphin 2010-2020, which “identified threats to Gangetic Dolphins and impact of river traffic, irrigation canals and depletion of prey-base on Dolphins populations”.

NATIONAL AQUATIC ANIMAL: On October 5, 2009, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while chairing the maiden meeting of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, declared the Gangetic river dolphin as the national aquatic animal. A notification was issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests the following year. Now, the National Mission for Clean Ganga celebrates October 5 as National Ganga River Dolphin Day.

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