Among some of the many communities that live on the banks of the river Ganges, people tell a curious story. Once upon a time, a long time ago, a princess was bathing in the Ganges. Frisking in the water, suddenly she saw that her father-in-law was also taking his morning constitutional along the river. Mortified at the idea of being seen in her state of undress by her father-in-law, the beautiful princess ducked under water. She never emerged. The waves magically transformed her into a river dolphin, so she could hide beneath them for eternity. “That is why these creatures are so elusive,” a boatman in Benares once told me, “they shrink away from the gaze of men like their ancestor once did.” His story came back to me when I read about the deaths of three Ganges river dolphins in Bihar last month — poached even though it’s been well-publicised that this creature may not survive this decade if we don’t protect its dwindling numbers. No wonder they shrink from the human gaze…
“Strangely, the government blames us fishermen for the disappearing dolphins in the river,” the Benares boatman told me, “but there are hardly any for us to kill. I feel it is the growing pollution in the Ganges that is killing them off!” He was reacting to the government’s plan of appointing dolphin mitras (friends) among the fishermen, whose responsibility would be to patrol the river banks and protect the dolphins from poachers. “The government can make us poor people do all that, but what is it doing to reverse the core cause of the decline of the dolphins, which is the pollution in our river?” he said.
When last month, the Ganges river dolphin was accorded the status of national aquatic animal, I did some research and found that my boatman friend was not far from the truth.
Even though some dolphins get poached for their blubber (which local fisher folk use as bait) and meat, it really doesn’t account much for the startling drop in their population over the last two decades.
Down to a mere 2,000 today, Ganges river dolphins show us exactly how badly off our two great rivers – Ganges and Brahmaputra – are today. These creatures are highly sensitive to pollutants and run offs — and the increased use of pesticides in agriculture is an important reason why their numbers are dropping at an alarming rate of 10 per cent every year. These blind aquatic mammals also get disoriented by the sounds of motor boats because they navigate purely through their sense of hearing. Further, their habitat has shrunk, thanks to the construction of dams and increased human activities along river banks.
When I lived in Mirzapur (a UP town on the banks of Ganges) the Ganges river dolphin only seemed to exist in people’s memories. Older people remembered seeing dolphins in the river, but ever since the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal strangled the life out of the river downstream in the mid seventies, few Susu (so named because of the sound they make while breathing) sightings have been reported thereabouts.
Given that they flourish in flowing rivers with clean water and abundant fish, river dolphins are accurate indicators of the health of their habitat. So what the decline of the river dolphin indicates is that the hugely expensive government river clean-up programmes haven’t been very effective. In 2007, their closest relative, the Baiji or the Yangtze river dolphin finally sank into oblivion. If we don’t act now, the Ganges dolphin – and indeed the Ganga itself – could meet the same fate.