The ‘My Ganga, My Dolphin’ campaign in Uttar Pradesh picks up pace with WWF going into campaign mode in Narora

Once found in abundance in the Ganga river system, the number of dolphins has dwindled at an alarming rate in the past three decades owing to a host of reasons — shrinkage of habitat and industrial pollution being at the top of the table. According to a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimate, the population of these graceful creatures plummeted from 4,000-5,000 in 1982 to a less than 2,000 at present. Moreover, their annual mortality rate is as high as 130 to 160 animals.

Incidentally, dolphins were declared India’s National Aquatic Animal in 2009.

In order to save the Gangetic dolphin from relegated to natural history book pages and find ways of increasing the existing population, WWF India, in partnership with the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department, has undertaken a survey of the number of dolphins in an approximate 3,000 km stretch of the Ganga and its tributaries Yamuna, Son, Ken, Betwa, Ghagra and Geruwa.

Speaking about the constant dip in dolphin numbers, Sandeep Behera, dolphin researcher and associate director of WWF India’s River Basins and Bio-diversity, held unplanned developmental activities along the rivers, indiscriminate fishing and habitat destruction as some of the prime causes behind it.

“The decrease in the number of dolphins in the 165-km stretch, including Narora, was due to the use of pesticides in the crops in fields by river, industrial radiation and pollution,” he added.

The WWF has set up an office at Narora in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district to carry out an awareness campaign ‘My Ganga, My Dolphin’. The campaigners are reaching out to school students in the area, apart from trying to convince the fishermen and farmers. Earlier, the fishermen used to extract oil from the blubber of dolphins for its perceived medicinal properties to cure skin diseases, as fish baits and for soap making and tanning. Dolphin teeth were superstitiously used to cure children from having nightmares.

The local WWF representative Viveksheel Sagar said: “In Narora, we involved sadhus , fishermen and farmers in the project. While sadhus can preach in mandalis , fishermen can avoid indiscriminate fishing and farmers can stop using pesticides.”

To discourage the farmers from using spray pesticides and yet get good yield, they were taught wormiculture, which is preparing organic pesticide for free in 45 days using cow dung, food waste and earthworms. “We managed to pursue Jayshankar Singh Kushwaha, the only graduate in Narora’s Naudei ki Madhaiyya village. He convinced his family and they started wormiculture in 2010,” Mr. Sagar said.

When The Hindu visited this non-descript village of 1,100 people, we found two huge pits of wormi-compose/culture in the house of Chandarpal Kushwaha. They prepare the pesticide till June and use it throughout the year.

Excitedly showing a bunch of healthy brinjals, Chandarpal said that though hesitant initially, use of the pesticide has given good yield of crops. “Earlier we used to use 10 kg of urea in our 10 beegha fields, now we have to use only five kg of wormi-compose. We not only get better crop but also great prices in the market.”

Pramod Kumar Sharma in nearby Karnwas village maintains 22 wormi-compose pits and sell the fertiliser to 250 farmers. Each 50kg-bag fetches him Rs. 200.

Happy with the results, the Kushwaha family is helping in spreading awareness in nearby villages about the use of wormi-compose and saving the dolphins by keeping the river clean. Jayshankar said: “I tell them not to throw polythene bags and other waste in the Ganga.”

To check how clean the Ganga is on that stretch and watch dolphins, we head for a boat ride in the scorching but breezy afternoon. In the clear water with no trace of polythene or grime, we spot eight huge, grey dolphins — one even with four calves. They come out of water to breathe, creates a swirl in that area and a few seconds later, plunge back making a sooooos sound. Mr. Behera informed that 71 dolphins have increased since the survey in 2005 that recorded 600 animals.

The Gangetic dolphins, Plantaista Gangetica, are one of the four freshwater dolphins found and differ from the well known marine species. “They are 90 per cent blind as their eyes have no lens. So they use echo-location, creating sound to make out the topography. They have a long snout with which they grovel in mud for food. Because of less use of eyes, or environmental pollution, their eyes degenerate,” said Hari Singh, a WWF researcher. Because of the sound they make, local people call them susu or sooons .

WWF CEO Ravi Singh said that the river dolphin is an indicator animal, which has the same position in a river ecosystem as a tiger in a forest. “Listed by IUCN as ‘Endangered’ and placed in Schedule - 1 of Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the dolphin enjoys high levels of legal protection nationally and internationally. Yet its numbers continue to decline, in absence of a coordinated conservation planning, lack of awareness, continuing developmental pressures and almost no protected areas for the species.”