Did you know that there might have been a five percent decrease in the dolphin population in Nepal last year?
About two months I was on a trip to Bardia for the annual elephant polo extravaganza. Little did I guess that another even more awe-inspiring encounter awaited me.
As I was on a drive along the Lalmati section of the Karnali river, a movement in the riverbed caught my eye. The river seemed to part suddenly and a shimmering creature hurled itself out of the clear blue water and disappeared back in.
What did I just see? Was it just a fish? Or was I fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the fabled dolphins that swim in our Karnali? A minute later the magnificent creature appeared again, playfully jumping out of the water. Yes, it was a dolphin! I could not believe my luck. My eyes were glued to the spot until it appeared again.
For almost an hour, I followed the dolphin as it scooped in and out of the water. To my surprise, it was later joined by three other dolphins. It was a breathtaking experience to watch these beautiful dolphins in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, I did not have a camera to capture the moment, but I managed to record them in my phone.
There are only a handful of dolphins in the waters of Nepal. They were officially first discovered in 1801. According to various studies carried on for dolphin existence in Karnali, there are about 20 adult dolphins in Nepal. Known as Platanista gangetica, the Ganga River dolphins were once distributed in four river systems of Nepal. However, they are now mainly found in Karnali and Sapta Kosi Rivers.
My rare encounter with the dolphins had quite an impact on me. As an environmentalist I have worked years for conservation of wildlife habitats. I came back to Kathmandu with a strong pledge to extend my work for the dolphins in Nepal.
However, when I returned to Kathmandu, I was appalled to learn that a dolphin had been rumored to be found dead at Lalmati.
Back from such a thrilling sighting of dolphins in the same area, I could not help but investigate. Unfortunately, I discovered that the news was true. Highly placed sources have confirmed that a dolphin was indeed found dead in Lalmati in the first week of December. Although the exact cause of the dolphin’s death is unconfirmed, officials say that the body was found with an ugly cut, possibly made by a sharp weapon. The body of the ill-fated dolphin is kept at the Natural Trust for Nature Conservation’s Aquatic Museum in Sauraha.
One dolphin dead among 20 is a 5 percent decrease in dolphin population. Such a decrease in “star” conservation animals such as tigers or rhinos would have triggered an outrage among conservation activists. The news would have made headlines. International conservation organisations would have stepped in to find the cause. Yet, even almost two months after the incident, it is difficult to even get details on the dolphin’s death.
Why did this incident not get such attention? Was the news been hushed down or is it just the lack of interest in dolphin conservation that has prevented it from getting the response it deserves? Who knows if there have been other such incidents this year?
It is strange that despite the rarity of dolphins in Nepal, the stress for their conservation is almost minimal. Nepal’s efforts to conserve tigers, rhinos and gharials have received international support and appreciation. Yet, little has been done to conserve our dolphins.
Lack of information on the dolphins and their habitat is the first hurdle in pushing for the conservation and acting against their potential extinction. Hardly any integrated conservation initiatives have been taken to protect these vulnerable species. Their habitats are threatened and there is lack of awareness among local population to conserve them.
It is high time that concerned authorities work to preserve these endangered Ganges dolphins. Nepal is fortunate to be home to these magnificent creatures. In addition to preserving the bio diversity in the region, dolphin conservation efforts can invite potential for eco tourism. How many countries can boast of a single safari ride that showcases gharials, tigers, rhinos, tuskers and dolphins in the same go?
If the existing scenario continues, then these dolphins are bound to be extinct within few years . The last dolphin will die and no one will know.
Chanda Rana is an environmentalist who has worked intensively in conservation issues. She has been awarded by the Ministry of Environment for her work against wild weed infestation at Chitwan National Park .