28 februari 2020
River dolphins in India - do we need them?
And now I am out on a river once more, happy as a child. If you ask me, it is always great to be on, near or close to a river – and here I am, sitting on the edge of an inflated boat, taking in the surroundings. This is the Ganga, the ‘Mother river’ to Indians, and it is a precious one. The stretch we are sailing is a protected wildlife reserve: 100 km of wide horizons and dynamic sand banks on which turtles and gharials (an endangered species of freshwater crocodile) enjoy the sun as much as I do. Flocks of birds surround us. And, of course, the very reason why I am here: here lives the Ganges river dolphin.
Just minutes after we take off, the first dolphin surfaces a couple of meters from our boat; I can see his dark back and small fin very clearly. Wow! You just made my day, dear friend!
This dolphin is a close relative to the Indus dolphin I saw last week, and it is still a mystery: are there two separate species? Or do all the remaining dolphins swimming in the rivers of Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh belong to the same species? I expect the scientific proof to be published soon, declaring they are actually two different species. Just now I indeed noticed a difference in size and color. Although the mystery adds to the charm, it is important to understand the situation these amazing animals are in, to be able to protect them effectively.
Do you need me? Or do I need you?
The wide river makes us philosophical, leading to intriguing discussions. Like the core question: do we need river dolphins? Why should we care? Maybe we can live without them. After all, we already lost one species: the Chinese baiji of the Yangtze river was declared extinct in 2007 and humankind didn’t seem to be much affected. But indirectly, we are dependent on river dolphins for our survival.
If river dolphins go extinct, it tells us something is very wrong with the river. Dolphins are top predators, just like jaguars and wolves: if they are suffering, it means the system is suffering. This can be caused by dams (lack of water, lack of flow, lack of sediment, lack of connectivity), by poor water quality, by shortage of fish to prey on. We, humans, need all of those as well; clean water to drink and irrigate our crops, fish to eat, sediments to build houses on.
And I am certain it works the other way around as well. Taking out a top predator affects the systems’ balance: some fish might thrive once their main predator is gone, which will influence the smaller fish and plants that are suddenly hunted more severely. This in turn will affect the thriving species as well. An unstable system will eventually affect the fish we consume – we just do not know exactly in which way.
My Indian colleagues show me their research and monitoring work. It’s not yet clear how many Ganga dolphins are left, nor how the population is doing. We think there are around 3000 and that the numbers are stable. But new dams and water pollution of the Ganges are increasing threats. Measuring is knowing. And knowing is caring. So, we measure.
But we cannot wait to act until we know everything. We need people to care and conserve today. Not only the politicians and bureaucrats I discussed before; we need a global movement of people that care. Therefore, I am happy to see our work with local communities. The children of a ‘water school’ teach me what they have learned from my colleagues, about water, the river and the dolphins. A ferry man shows me how he reports every day if he has seen a dolphin. This kind of citizen science gives us regular updates, and, maybe even more important, connects illiterate people to their river and its illustrious species.
Knowing is caring
During this trip, in our WWF offices, at the CMS conference, along the rivers, I met many people with energy, ambition and ideas how we can ‘bend the curve’: from worldwide river dolphin population declines towards an increase. I feel we are indeed creating that momentum I talked about earlier: we can do it, making people care in all 15 river dolphin states, working together to save the species. For the dolphins’ sake, for the river communities’ sake. And in the end: for our own sake.
Foto's bij verslag (4)
29 februari 2020 09:47 | Door: gerard
dear Daphne, thanks for sharing this experience! I remember the discussions you and I had with your indian collegues about these goals and want to know if it is still possible to think about how to involve the large public into this. Our moonshot was to focus on the primary schools. Every Delhi and Kolkata child should have a basic nature submerging experience in the Ganga itself, at least one week or so. We all know that this means quite a population. Let me know if I can help!
29 februari 2020 21:09 | Door: Yvonne
hoi lieve Daphne, ik geniet weer van je mooie verhalen vanuit die totaal andere wereld. Heerlijk, dank je wel. Je doet mooi werk. Liefs