Guwahati now has its own mascot, the first city in the country to do so. It is the Gangetic river dolphin, an animal on the verge of extinction. Parliament was informed of its status in March this year that only 2,500-3,000 freshwater dolphins are estimated to be surviving in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Of these, 80 percent dolphins are distributed in the Gangetic-Brahmaputra and Karphuli-Sangu river systems in Indian territory. Known as Sihu in Assam and Shishumaar in other parts of the country, it is a unique animal, lacking eye lens and therefore practically blind, yet vigates and hunts efficiently with its sor system while swimming sideways. But Gangetic river dolphins face several threats. They get entangled in nets, collide with boats, and are poisoned by industrial and agricultural pollutants in rivers. Sand mining on riverbeds harms them, dams and barrages segregate them and interfere in their breeding. What is more, they are also hunted for their oil and meat which are used as liniment or as aphrodisiac. This, despite Gangetic river dolphins being listed in Schedule-1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, as well as by the Intertiol Union for Conservation of ture (IUCN) as an endangered species.
Though the Union Environment and Forest ministry had earlier declared the Gangetic dolphin as the country’s tiol aquatic animal, its conservation efforts have not been encouraging. The Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has begun a conservation program for the Gangetic dolphin with Rs 23 crore funding support by the Centre. It aims to conduct a status survey and long term monitoring of the species, develop protocol and procedure, and restore its critical habitat. The existence of such dolphins is considered an indicator of river quality as a whole. So its conservation will involve monitoring river water and associated fau in the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, setting up rescue centers for the species, apart from awareness drives among fisher-folk and riverine people. Even counting them is not easy. Experts point out that Indian census of river dolphins depend on visual surveys, with men on a boat looking in different directions to count dolphins when they surface to breathe. So there is significant probability of multiple counts, as the same dolphin can surface in different spots. Reliable estimates of dolphin population can be made only with appropriate technology, setting up sor monitoring stations along riversides to track dolphins with acoustic sensors.
It will do well to remember that while the numbers of Gangetic sub-species of freshwater dolphins are declining and the Indus sub-species barely holding, their cousins in Chi’s Yangtze river have been considered extinct since 2006, when a research expedition surveyed the length of the 3,500 km river without finding a single individual. Now that the Gangetic river dolphin is Guwahati’s mascot too, it will require much work to protect its habitat in river Brahmaputra near the city. Be as it may, the Kamrup Metro district administration, the State Forest department, the Assam State Biodiversity Board and the NGO Help Earth deserve kudos for this enlightened initiative. But let us spare a thought for the two other endangered contenders that lost out to the Sihu in the 3-month-long online and offline vote, mely the black softshell turtle (bor kaso) and the greater adjutant stork (hargila). Can other cities in Assam take up similar initiatives to protect such endangered creatures, and several others besides? Such initiatives are invaluable in creating awareness among the people about endangered animals living near them and help in biodiversity conservation efforts.