National tag boost for Assam dolphins

Guwahati, Oct. 12 : The declaration of the Gangetic river dolphin as a national aquatic mammal has come as a big boost to the species in the Brahmaputra, identified as its last refuge.
“This is a very encouraging step for protection of the species since it will now mean government commitment for concrete action,” Abdul Wakid, cetacean (dolphin) specialist and programme head of the Gangetic Dolphin Research and Conservation Programme of Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based NGO, said today.
Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh made the declaration in New Delhi last week.
At present, there are less than 2,000 dolphins of this species surviving in the world, a situation worse than that of the tiger. Of these, nearly 300 dolphins are in the Brahmaputra.
“The Brahmaputra river system in Assam has been identified as one of the last refuge of the species by scientific communities in the world because it is less polluted and has no habitat fragmentation,” Wakid said.
Gill Braulik of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s cetacean specialist group said the Brahmaputra is a very important habitat for these endangered dolphins and to protect them involvement of local river communities was of utmost importance.
“In some places, like in the Kukurmara area of the Kulsi river in Assam, the dolphins, protected by the local communities, have become a tourist attraction. But in other areas, the dolphins are accidentally killed when they get tangled in fishing nets or are sometimes deliberately caught and killed for their oil,” he said.
Forest department officials have also expressed happiness on the support given by the Centre. Dispur had declared river dolphins, locally called xihu, as the state aquatic animal last year.
Although there was a gradual decline in its number in the last few decades, the population has been increasing in more recent times.
In the 1993, 1997 and 2002 surveys, altogether 266, 218, and 198 dolphins were recorded in the Brahmaputra mainstream. However, in the 2005 and 2008 surveys, Aaranyak has recorded 197 and 212 dolphins respectively in the same stretch of the river (Assam-Arunachal border to India-Bangladesh border).
“The increase from 197 (in 2005) to 212 (in 2008) in the Brahmaputra is a good sign. One of the major reasons behind this population increase is the adoption of effective site-based conservation initiatives,” Wakid said.
He said for the better future of the species in the Brahmaputra river system, the management authorities, conservation organisations and local communities need to work closely since threatening factors like accidental killing, poaching and habitat degradation are still commonplace.