The declaration of the Ganges river dolphin as India’s national aquatic animal by the Ganga River Basin Authority chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi earlier this week has gladdened the hearts of conservationists but they are of the view that quick action is needed to salvage the species which is said to be the world’s most threatened mammal.

The Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems account for 1,500-2,000 Ganges river dolphins (Platanista gangetica) but their status is mostly unknown. Moreover, their habitats are shrinking as the smaller rivers are drying up and even the bigger rivers do not have uninterrupted flow in various parts. It is pointed out that some 20 years ago both the river systems had double the present number of dolphins in them.

“We are happy that there will be some focus on Ganges river dolphins after their elevation to the status of the national aquatic animal. For the past one decade we have been on a mission to survey and study their habitats and are of the view that much has to be done,” said Parikshit Gautam, Director, Freshwater and Wetlands, World Wide Fund for Nature-India, talking to The Hindu.

WWF-India has been intensively studying the status of the species on a 180-km stretch from Bijanor to Narona Barrage which account for 42-45 dolphins. “Based on our experience we would be able to contribute to the efforts for its conservation,” he said. Perhaps river dolphins face the threat of extinction more from habitat destruction than from poaching though they are hunted for their oil. The fishermen, out of ignorance, tend to treat them as competitors though dolphins generally consume only small fish. They also perish after getting trapped in fishing nets.

A study coordinated by S. K. Behera, senior scientist with WWF-India’s Freshwater and Conservation Programme in various rivers of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh during 2001, indicated the presence of 88 Ganges dolphins in the Chambal river. “Since the dolphin is at the apex of the aquatic chain its presence in adequate numbers symbolises greater bio-diversity in the river system,” the study noted.

Despite the existence of a National River Dolphin Action Plan, there has not been any comprehensive study of the Ganges dolphins in the country and there could be even hitherto unidentified pockets where they exist. “About a year and a half back we re-discovered the presence of Indus river dolphin in the Beas in Punjab. One may find isolated populations of dolphins elsewhere as well,” pointed out Dr. Gautam.

The species can be searched for in the Son, Ken-Betwa, Sindh and Kunwari rivers of U.P. and M.P. and in Meghna and Karnaphuli river systems in Bangladesh -- where they have been historically present -- besides in the other tributaries of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. The only Ganges river dolphin sanctuary in the country is Vikramshila in Bihar, from whose Chief Minister Nitish Kumar came the proposal for declaring the species as the national aquatic animal at the Ganga River Basin Authority meeting.

“The declaration is only the first step. What should follow is setting up of a Project Dolphin,” points out Dr. Gautam. The planners and conservationists could work on strategies to protect them at the known habitations while searching out for other existing locations. “Our experience says that there is a need to work with the communities living along the banks of the river systems for effective protection of the species,” he asserts.