When one imagines dolphins they see a pod of them jumping and splashing around in their playful way in the deep ocean. Some will even refer to the image shown in the big screen in the movie Titanic where they are seen racing along side the gigantic ship. Most of us don’t even know that these dolphins are also found in our backyard, say in the Karnali River and its tributaries.
South Asian River Dolphins (Platanista Gangetica) are known by various other names like Ganges River Dolphin, Blind River Dolphin, Side-Swimming Dolphin, Gangetic Dolphin, Ganges Susu, Shushuk, Bhulan, Indus Dolphin and Indus Blind Dolphin. Ironically, the number of dolphins found here in Nepal is fewer than the names they are known by. The locals who have seen them don’t know what they are and believe it is just a big fish, which they are not, they are mammals.
The main characteristic of these river dolphins is that they have a long pointed nose and have visible teeth on both upper and lower jaws. Because of this, when they come to breath with just their snout peeking out of the river surface, they look similar to the Gharial, a species of crocodile also found in Nepal. You may be seeing a river dolphin but think it’s a gharial. They are called Blind River Dolphin not because the river is too muddy and they cannot see in it but because they don’t have crystalline eye lens and are literally blind. They navigate and hunt their prey in the river with the help of echolocation much like a sonar and radar. River dolphins are migratory mammals that follow their prey consisting mainly of small fishes upstream and downstream along the river depending on the seasons.
Mahakali, Koshi, Karnali Rivers and its tributaries once used to be home to these beautiful dolphins. But the situation has changed drastically during recent years with dangerous decline in the population. There are many contributing factors that lead them to the brink of extinction ending them in the endangered list in IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.
The problems for conservation efforts of the concerned authorities seems to be a number of dams constructed in upstream rivers which have blocked the travel route for these migratory creatures, the overly dependent nature of the locals on the river itself, the problem of over fishing for both commercial and local consumption isn’t helping either, dolphins getting entangled in their nets eventually losing their lives, the excessive uses of chemical fertilizers in agricultural farming and chemical discharges into the river are poisoning the fresh water adding to the threat for dolphins living in the river. There is also the threat of urbanization and excessive and disorderly farming near the river area and the river banks causing major disruption in the habitat of the dolphins. The natural disaster like flooding also displaces these creatures from their natural and original habitat.
But unfortunately, people fail to realize that these gentle creatures are pride and treasure of Nepal along with Mt. Everest, rhino, tiger, red panda and snow leopard. It’s quite interesting that all these animals are also in the endangered animal’s category. Neither is Mt. Everest spared from the thousands of humans encroaching on it every year. These dolphins are so little known here particularly these specific species that live in the river system that are extremely shy and elusive in nature. They are particularly hard to find as their numbers are very few and cannot be found every where for the past years.
Many of us don’t even know that fresh water dolphins exist in the river of Nepal. Whenever there is some news on river dolphins of Nepal, now mostly found only in country’s longest and largest river Karnali and its tributaries, it is always listed as an endangered species. The news is always about how the surveys done on them in Nepal show a severe decline in the population. There have been reports where it is said that they have spotted just four dolphins during the surveys. For what seems like forever, since back in the days of 2005 these gentle creatures have been facing threat of extinction from loss of habitat, excessive hunting of small fishes which are their prey and they are already low in numbers to begin with. If the trend of ignorance from the government and the locals continue, it won’t be long before they are wiped out from the face of the earth like Baiji, the Chinese River Dolphin of the mighty Yangtze River in China.
The conservation efforts of concerned authorities are not going to help in the future if the local people are not made aware of the value of these beautiful mammals, without their help in the conservation effort these dolphins don’t stand a chance for long term survival in the Karnali. The locals have to be diverted into other fields of work that will not affect the river saving the endangered species. They could also be engaged with the conservation of the environment of the area, ecosystem of the river and the dolphin’s altogether. The benefit of tourism is always there with these rare creatures. Not only they can be promoted for eco-tourism along with other natural features and wonders of the area near the dolphin’s habitat but also can help to promote the traditional and cultural lifestyles of the locals, introducing and promoting the area for local and foreign tourism.
These critically endangered river dolphins are rare in the wild and to get a glimpse of them from the famous Karnali Bridge is a rare and precious life moment at this time. See if you adrenaline junkies can spot these elusive creatures on your white water rafting and kayaking trips in the Karnali River!