Saving Indus River Dolphins — Pakistan
My name is Hamera Aisha and I work as Wildlife Manager at WWF-Pakistan. My job involves working very closely with communities, governments, and other relevant partners to protect the Indus river dolphin and many other vanishing wildlife species of Pakistan and their habitats. My work also includes raising awareness about the planet and country’s biodiversity and engaging with the public, especially children (students), to help develop an association with nature, the need to care for wildlife, such as the rare dolphin, and the need for its protection.
New hope for the Indus River dolphin
The Indus river dolphin is the second most endangered freshwater dolphin in the world, due to many threats it faces including fragmentation of their habitat after barrages were built across the Indus River, entanglement in fishing nets, reduced flow of water in the river, and pollution from surrounding industries.
In 2001, WWF conducted the first Indus River dolphin survey and the chances of survival for this endangered river dolphin were bleak. That year, only 1,200 individuals counted were identified. What followed were concerted efforts by WWF, provincial wildlife departments and communities to protect the dolphin.
Fifteen years later, a survey showed that these conservation efforts were successful and 2,000 dolphins were counted, showing the population is on the rise for the first time. This conservation work also involves physically rescuing dolphins trapped in shallow waters and carefully moving them to be released into the Indus River where they can survive. The 2017 survey is a sign of hope and a reminder that we need to continue our efforts to protect dolphins and explore innovative solutions for its conservation.
Who are the rangers who help with dolphin rescue?
The Indus dolphin habitat is spread across three provinces and hence wildlife departments from each province play an important role in the conservation of the species.
The role of wildlife rangers is a good example of the commitment of communities towards saving the wildlife of Pakistan. Nazir Mirani is one such inspirational ranger who has spent well over 25 years serving the Sindh Wildlife Department, rescuing dolphins in the lower Indus River, which hosts the highest dolphin population.
Rescuing dolphins can be a tricky job. Nazir’s hands are full of dolphin bites from various rescue operations he has been a part of. But according to him, he cannot imagine a life without dolphins around him. He is an excellent swimmer and is joined by a team that locates dolphins in shallow water bodies. After a dolphin is spotted, Nazir ensures its safe translocation to the main river channel in a soundproof ambulance.
Over the years, WWF along with communities and the Wildlife Department has devised a standard mechanism to rescue these dolphins, which Nazir and his team follows. More than a hundred dolphins have been rescued in the past few years.
There are other community watchers who facilitate the Wildlife Departments in monitoring and dolphin rescue operations. But these rangers work with limited resources, without proper equipment and necessary training; most are unfamiliar with work-related safety measures. Their jobs involve patrolling along the Indus River to look for illegal fishing activities, which can entangle dolphins in nets and lead to mortality. The rangers involved in dolphin rescue operations need proper swimming gear and training on how to use it.
Are there different roles for other partner organisations?
The dolphin conservation initiative is a great example of participatory conservation which integrates research and community-based conservation while addressing socio-economic challenges as well as effective coordination and enforcement. WWF works in close collaboration with the wildlife departments and other relevant organisations to facilitate dolphin conservation, especially the rescue efforts.
A dolphin monitoring network including the representatives of Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD), Sindh Irrigation Department (SID), Sindh Forest Department (SFD), Sindh Fisheries Department (SFD), Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and local community activists, who monitor the Indus River as well as its adjacent canals and tributaries to rescue any stranded dolphins.
How do rescue teams find out about a trapped dolphin?
WWF has helped set up a hotline where communities report strandings of dolphins to WWF and the Wildlife Department. The rescue team then arrive on a dolphin rescue ambulance.
Stranding of Indus River dolphins in canals is amongst the key threats which this endangered species is facing. When canal gates are closed, the level of water drops and these canals turn into small ponds. The dolphins are trapped in these ponds, unable to swim back, with only limited food supply.
WWF-Pakistan has set up a 24-hour phone helpline for fishermen and the rest of the community to report any incidents of stranded river dolphins to WWF-Pakistan and the Sindh Wildlife Department, for timely reporting and rescue of the dolphins.
What does a dolphin rescue look like?
All rescues are conducted by the Wildlife Department with the help of community members. Once the team arrives on the dolphin rescue ambulance, they spot the dolphin. The dolphin is then manually lifted out of the canal, placed on a stretcher and taken to a soundproof ambulance. The Indus dolphin is a sensitive species and is vulnerable to stress during the rescue and translocation process. If standard procedures are not followed, the Dolphins face a high probability of injuries.
The Indus dolphin relies on its highly developed sonar and hearing to navigate. The sound and movement of vehicles can cause additional stress. If the team is not careful, the dolphin could even die. This all makes it extremely critical to keep the animal calm once it is outside the water.
WWF-Pakistan’s specialized ambulance is equipped with necessary equipment including a portable stretcher specifically designed for dolphins, to ensure the dolphin’s safety during the rescue. The ambulance is completely soundproof and has a water tank with an electric motor on the roof to carry river water used to moisten the dolphin’s skin through a shower.
The Indus river dolphin is my inspiration and I have an emotional association with it due to its continuous struggle for survival despite various conservation challenges, and because of its calm and lovable nature. I take pride in the fact that I am one of the few women of Pakistan who was able to join the survey and count dolphins throughout their habitat in the remote areas of Pakistan. In order to do so I, along with a number of other colleagues, spent close to a month living and working on the Indus River, making camp on the shore to sleep at night. This work has been very helpful to understand that dolphins have increased in number as an outcome of the continuous conservation efforts in Pakistan and also for future planning for their better conservation.
This experience has inspired me to connect more with communities and to better understand the challenges which dolphins face. I am fortunate enough to have been able to continue to work close to the dolphin habitat in the south of Pakistan to address direct and indirect threats to the species and its habitat. My current work for example on the poaching and illegal trade of freshwater turtles also focuses on the Indus river system within the same habitat.
Hamera Aisha is Wildlife Manager, WWF-Pakistan.