Pakistan Reader# 253, 18 November 2021
On 8 November, an endangered Indus dolphin was rescued from a busy waterway and moved to a safer sanctuary in the Larkana province of Sindh. The mammal had strayed into a busy waterway away from its freshwater home in the River Indus. There has been persistent effort to increase the number of this archaic mammal for dolphins are a reflection freshwater habitat and indicates a healthier water body due to minerals and fish ecosystem.
The Indus water dolphin
The Ganges water dolphin and Indus water dolphin are considered two subspecies of a single species, they have inhabited the riverine plains of India and Pakistan since the Pleistocene age which began 25 lakh years ago. The uninhabited plains with dolphins would have been no less than Eden’s Garden. However, the human settlements impacted the water health of the two river systems, turning the water essentially turbid resulted in the blindness of native dolphin species of the Punjab plains and Northern plains of South Asia. Dolphins use echolocation to offset the lack of vision problem. Dolphins are very smart and sensitive mammals; they remotely survive and are majorly elusive but have adapted to the current state of water resource exploitation of river systems of Indus and Ganges.
In another instance, when a navy officer from India decided to swim across the whole stretch of the Ganges River, it was recorded by team support to the officer that he was greeted and acknowledged by dolphins of the Ganges living in that water stretch. It was exhilarating for the officer to get a sense of recognition by non-human but smart species.
Threats to dolphin niches in the Indus River system
Dolphins need at least one-meter water depth to co-habitat but increased construction of river water holding systems like dams, barrages have limited their movement and fragmentation of their habitats due to lack of depth coverage on the water stretch. There are four different population habitats of Indus dolphins separated by irrigation barrages in Pakistan. The number of dolphins in Pakistan stands at 1816 in 2019 which is much better than the figure of 132 dolphins in the year 1972. There has been an optimistic trajectory since then and there is scope for more. Further getting stuck in fishing nets is a big threat for the native dolphin seeing its size and frequent movements along with a whole population habitat.
Legacy in folk and ecology
Called bhulan in colloquial Urdu and the Sindhi language finds mention in folk stories and songs in the geographical culture irrespective of the religion. It is said, bhulan was once a woman who forgot to feed milk to a holy man and he cursed the female to turn into a gentle and blind mammal that inhabited the might rivers of South Asia for thousands of years.
There is another ugly side of the story, it is a tradition in Sindh villages to rape Indus dolphins for some very disturbing reasons. So dolphin as a mammal does not have only gleamy aspects but a crude primitive tendency to exploit the dolphin be it through polluting waters and still being ignorant of it or raping by villages on the excuse of tradition reflects a sorry state from a human empathy. One must have the courage to think from the point of view of a dolphin who becomes resilient by living with the population of dolphins and finding meaning for its life in the murky waters.
Reuters Staff, “Dolphin that strayed is moved to sanctuary in Pakistan,” Reuters, 8 November 18, 2021
“Shocking Post Goes Viral On Social Media Claiming Indus Dolphins Being Raped By Locals In Sindh,” Khabaranaama, 16 October 2019
“8 Untold Legends of the Dolphin,” Underwater360, 4 February 2016