Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica) is a freshwater dolphin, distributed in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Karnaphuli river system of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The species has been facing severe threat as its global population decline, for which IUCN categorized the species as Endangered in 1996. It has been assessed that at present the species has not more than 2,500 individuals throughout its distributional ranges.
The Brahmaputra river system in north east India, particularly in Assam is one of the major habitats of the species. Before two decades the species was one of the commonly sighted aquatic mega-fauna not only in the Brahmaputra River, but also in most of its major tributaries. However, due to various anthropogenic pressures, most of the residential populations were declined from the tributaries and now only the Brahmaputra River is becoming the ultimate shelter for the species, where also the population has been rapidly decreasing.
In this situation, there is an urgent need to undertake a well planned and long term conservation effort to save Gangetic dolphin from extinction. With an aim to work for long term conservation of the endangered Gangetic dolphin in Brahmaputra river system, Aaranyak established Gangetic Dolphin Research and Conservation Division (GDRCD) in 2005 under the leadership of Dr. Abdul Wakid.
Aim of the Division
Conservation of Gangetic dolphin through research based investigation and active participation of all concerned stakeholders in Assam.
Objectives of the Programme
1. Determination of the population status and distribution pattern of dolphins in identified habitats of Assam.
2. Investigation of the habitat ecology and behaviour of dolphin populations in these habitats.
3. Identification of threats to the dolphins and their habitats and initiate site as well as factor based conservation measures.
4. Awareness raising and capacity building among the concerned stakeholders for the conservation of the species.
5. Identification of the least studied and potential field of research on the species and conduct study on these fields
Constructing a purpose-built boat
In order to strengthen the dolphin conservation activities in Brahmaputra river system, GDRCD constructed a purpose-built boat, which is a 75 feet long boat with two engines, 6 cabins, 2 survey platforms and a research lab. The boat can accommodate 5 boat crews and 15 biologists/educators with all facilities and can run for long distances. This is the first of such dedicated research cum education boat for dolphin conservation in India. Till now, this boat is travelling more than 5000 km journeys across the Brahmaputra River for dolphin surveys and community engagement and awareness activities.
Standardization of Gangetic dolphin abundance estimate method
To get a correct population estimate with minimized bias (perception and availability), GDRCD in collaboration with Wildlife Institute of India and Zoological Society of London, trialled different available survey methods for cetacean abundance estimate and finally established the Independent double observer based Capture-recapture method as the standardized method for the abundance estimate and future population monitoring of the species in Brahmaputra river system. Through this method, GDRCI recorded total 635 Gangetic dolphins in Brahmaputra river system in 2012 survey.
Population assessment of Gangetic dolphin in Assam
The GDRCD conducted total 3 times (2005, 2008, 2012) Gangetic dolphin survey in the entire 1050 km dolphin inhabited river stretches of Brahmaputra river system within Assam. The latest population assessment by GDRCD indicated the existence of total 635 dolphins in Brahmaputra river system in 2012.
Population assessment of dolphins in Indian Sundarban
In February-March, 2014, the GDRCD conducted dolphin survey in Sundarban Biosphere Reserve of West Bengal. This was the first ever dolphin survey in Indian Sundarban. Total 33 channels / rivers were surveyed with a total transects of 776 km length. This survey recorded two dolphin species – Irrawaddy dolphin and Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin where no Gangetic dolphin was recorded. Data analysis and report preparation is ongoing.
Dolphin Conservation Network (DCN)
With an aim to conserve Gangetic dolphins and their habitats through local community participation, GDRCD established Dolphin Conservation Network (DCN) Units in 2008 covering 30 most important dolphin habitats across Assam. Each DCN Unit consists of average 10 community people representing different stakeholders and have been engaging in regular monitoring of the dolphins, associated other riverrine species and their habitats in a regular and well-coordinated processes. These all 30 DCN Units are equipped with basic scientific equipments (GPS, Camera, Binocular, guidebooks) and extensive training on dolphin and other aquatic species monitoring and protection in their localities.
In order to conduct awareness campaign on the Gangetic dolphin and Brahmaputra river ecosystem in the remote river side villages, GDRCD set up a new approach naming as ‘Dolphin Yatra’ in 2012, which is a boat based awareness campaign in the river side villages of Brahmaputra, Kulsi and Subansiri River by a group of dedicated trained educators, who conducts the awareness campaign with the help of a 60-ft long poster presentation, talks and a drama on dolphin conservation. Since 2012, GDRCD has been conducting total 177 awareness programmes in 175 river side villages in 3 Dolphin Yatra across Brahmaputra river system, where more than 50,000 direct audiences belonging to local communities were participated.
Fishery awareness campaign
To address the issues of Mortality of Gangetic dolphin through fishing net entanglement and overfishing in and around important dolphin habitats are two major causes of population decline of the species in Assam, GDRCD in collaboration with the State Fishery Department, conducted fishermen awareness campaign on sustainable fishing in total 82 river side villages where more than 6000 fishermen participated in 2012-14.
Alternate oil bait promotion
Poaching for dolphin oil (to be used as fish bait for catching the Neriafish by Bin community), is one of the major causes of population declining of the Gangetic dolphin in Assam. To address this issue, GDRCD in collaboration with Patna University (Bihar), first trained 5 Bin community fishermen in Ganges on alternate oil preparation and use. After that GDRCD did an experiment of this alternate oil in Brahmaputra which proved effective. Then GDRCD trained total 90 Bin fishermen in preparation of this alternate oil. Recently (2013-14) GDRCD provided free of this alternate oil to 127 Bin fishermen through which they earned a significant income and became confident in the use of this alternate oil.
Current conservation effort
This programme has been initiated with a conservation project entitled "Conservation of Gangetic dolphin in Brahmaputra river system, India" in collaboration with Dibrugarh University (Assam).
The project aims in the evaluation of conservation status of Gangetic dolphin in the entire Brahmaputra river system through research based investigation and formulation of site and factor based conservation strategy and initiation of effort for the conservation of the species.
At present the investigating team is conducting riverine survey in the Brahmaputra river and its major tributaries for
a) Identification of microhabitats of the species
b) Determination of the population status and distribution pattern of dolphins in each dentified microhabitats and
c) Identification and determination of anthropogenic pressures, especially poaching and by catch killing in each such identified microhabitats. Based upon the findings the threatened microhabitats will be identified, where protection measures will be taken through a management action plan and the active participation of all concerned stakeholders.
The project has been financially supported by BP Conservation Programme (as a joint programme of Birdlife International (UK), Fauna and Flora International (UK), Wildlife Conservation Society (USA), Conservation International (USA) and Rufford Small Grant for Nature Conservation (UK). Besides, the project has been supported by IUCN's Cetacean Specialist Group. Some of the salient progresses made within this initiative are -
In February-April, 2005, the GDRCP conducted its main population status survey in the 76 km stretch of Kulsi River (Kamrup district), 99 km stretch of Subansiri River (Lakhimpur district) and 856 km stretch of Brahmaputra mainstream from Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border to India-Bangladesh border. Altogether 250 dolphins (best estimate) were recorded in the entire Brahmaputra Valley with 27 in Kulsi, 26 in Subansiri and 197 in Brahmaputra mainstream.
Habitat ecology study
In 2006-07, the GDRCP conducted intensive study on the habitat ecology of the dolphins in Kulsi and Subansiri River. Altogether 76 km stretch of Kulsi River (Kamrup district) and 99 km dolphin inhabited stretch of Subansiri River (Lakhimpur district) were studied in details during the period.
Capacity development of local communities
2 Dolphin Conservation Training Camps were organized, one at Nimatighat (Jorhat district) of Eastern Assam from 25th to 27th February, 2006 and another at Jogighopa (Bongaigaon district) of Western Assam from 18th to 20th March, 2006 in collaboration with the concerned district administration and divisional forest offices. Altogether 70 community youths from 27 different areas (dolphin inhabited) of 10 different districts of Eastern, Central and Western Assam were trained up in these three days training camps, where the participants were trained up from basic ecology, biology, behaviour and threats of Ganges dolphin with direct field experience and the techniques through which they can undertake initiatives to minimize the threats of their nearest dolphin habitats.
Involving the stakeholders in dolphin conservation
One national level Dolphin Conservation Workshop was organized on 8th December, 2006 in Guwahati in collaboration with the Department of Environment & Forest, Govt. of Assam. Altogether 35 participants (managers, biologists, conservationists and journalist) from 15 different organizations were actively participated. The workshop reviewed the status of the species in Assam, discussed threats and put forwarded valuable recommendations for the conservation of the species in Assam.
Team ’s Capacity development
The Team Leader of the GDRCP worked as a Visiting Scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory (Florida, US) for two months in July-September, 2007 during which he worked with the marine biologists engaged in 7 different studies on the ecology, behaviour, biology and acoustics of the Bottlenose dolphins of Gulf of Mexico.
International symposium participation
The Project Leader of GDRCP participated in the Annual Conference of the Society for Conservation Biology at University of Brasilia (Brazil) in June 2005 and San Jose (California, USA) in June, 2006 during which he conveyed the recent research and conservation initiatives on the Gangetic dolphins of Brahmaputra river system to the global scientific communities.
World-wide campaign to save the species
The GDRCP conducted extensive campaign at both national and international level to save the species from the possible impact of the proposed seismic survey by Oil India Ltd on the Ganges dolphins of Brahmaputra River. With strong support from all the leading conservation organizations of India and abroad (IUCN, IWC, WDCS etc), the GDCRP demanded an intensive study on the possible impact and proper mitigation measures guideline before the seismic survey. As an attempt to that the MoEF critically examined the issue with special interest to the conservation of the species.
Abdul Wakid, the Programme Leader of GDRCP has been awarded Ph. D. degree by the Dibrugarh University (Assam) for his studies on the ecology and Behaviour of Gangetic dolphin in Eastern Brahmaputra basin in 2006.
Dr. Abdul Wakid, the Programme Leader of the GDRCP has been nominated as a Member to the prestigious IUCN-Cetacean Specialist Group.