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January 20, 2011

Environmental challenges endangering Blind Indus Dolphin


January 20, 2011

Growing environmental challenges have put enormous strain on relevant departments, which are racing against time to protect jovial and extremely sporty endangered blind Indus Dolphins from extinction in 900km long stretch of Indus River.
One can judge the rarity of the species with the 2009 official census, which revealed the dolphin population as only 900 between Guddu and Sukkur Barrage, while its population between Jinnah and Guddu Barrage was estimated at 400 in the year 2006.
Sindh Minister for Environment Sheikh Muhammad Afzal told this correspondent that approximately 1,100 specimens of this species now exist in a small fraction of their former range, the lower reaches of the Indus River in Pakistan. He said the population of this species started to decrease in the past because of various factors including poaching, fragmentation of habitat due to barrages, and dolphin stranding in the irrigation canals. “Till now no report indicated that any of the dolphins ever died due to water or any other kind of pollution. We take water samples from Indus River on quarterly basis and make reports after thorough evaluation,” he said.
In addition to efforts to conserve their habitat, staff members of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also get involved in rescue missions when individual dolphins become trapped in canals. WWF also coordinated the largest survey of the species ever in 2001 in collaboration with local partners. At the time of the first survey in 2001, blind dolphins, which are endemic to Pakistan and listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a ‘most threatened’ species, had a population of 1100.
Pakistan’s wildlife authorities and WWF during the survey assessed the population, behavioural changes and other relevant data for one of the most ‘docile, rare and shy’ Indus Blind Dolphin. Some 14 volunteers and professional biologists and scientists took part in the survey of a 1,500-km length of

Indus River in Northwestern Punjab province, downstream to Sukkur Barrage in southern Sindh province.
World Heritage Nomination in its report after the survey stated that the last inventory (2001) by WWF and the Sindh government indicated that there were still 950 blind dolphins in the Indus River.
Sheikh Muhammad Afzal said there has been no plan for conservation of Indus dolphins until 1972, but despite initiation of efforts to protect this specie some key factors have been continuously affecting the population of dolphins including development pressure (agriculture, water supply, industry and fishery), environmental pressure (pollution and climate change) and natural disasters (flooding and climate change).
The dolphins, whose local name is ‘Bhulan’, thrived in the muddy waters of the Indus until the 1930s when the British rulers built a number of barrages, or cross-river constructions, to store water for irrigation of agricultural lands. This split the dolphins’ population into small groups, degraded their habitat and impeded migration. By 1970s dolphins’ concentration was mainly reduced between Sukkur Barrage and Guddu Barrage on Sindh-Punjab border.
The Sindh government declared the area between these two barrages as the Indus River Dolphin Reserve in 1974. These dolphins, measuring between 1.5 and 2.5 meters in length and weighing a maximum of 90 kg, do not have a crystalline eye lens and so are blind. They navigate underwater entirely by a sophisticated ‘echo-location system.’ The physical touch gives them important information about their surroundings and helps them find food. An environmental group, the Adventure Foundation of Pakistan, is working with the UN to give people an economic incentive to protect this endangered species. The Foundation, which is aided through a UNDP project financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is also studying the possibility of moving the blind dolphins to another part of the Indus or to nearby rivers.
The WWF and Pakistani wildlife department officials are encouraging the local fishermen to opt for other means of livelihood to save the remaining population of the precious dolphins. They have managed to convince a large number of fishermen who now run ‘dolphin safaris’ in waters where they once used to fish, for local and foreign tourists.
Sindh Minister for Environment Sheikh Muhammad Afzal said a project titled ‘Protection and Conservation of Blind Indus Dolphin’ was approved by the Sindh government with the total cost of Rs92 million. The duration of the project was three years from 2009 to 2012 and it is under execution since April 2010. He said many centres have been established for conservation of blind Indus dolphins in Indus River from Sukkur to Guddu and from Guddu to Kotri. “After recent devastating floods we have been continuously taking water samples from Indus River and now four new samples have been sent to laboratories to check quality of water,” he said.

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