NEW DELHI ~ The Ganges Dolphin—of which an estimated 2,500 remain in India—earned itself a spot in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) ‘Red List’ as an endangered species in 1996. Then, the threats to the species included poaching (for the supposed aphrodisiacal powers of its oil and flesh), and the large-scale hydroelectric projects that were undertaken along the river from the 1950s. The IUCN stated that ‘the diversity and scale of threats’ to the cetacean ‘generally outpaced effort at documentation’, and said there had been ‘a plausible population size reduction of more than 50 per cent between 1944 and 1974’. The IUCN added that its extinction meant the wiping out of its family—an ancient lineage in the order Cetartiodactyla, of which it was the sole representative.
Yet, no task force of experts was dedicated to the Ganges Dolphin’s survival—until now. Patna University is soon opening Asia’s first dolphin research centre. According to reports, the state planning secretary sent a detailed proposal to this effect to the Planning Commission after Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia watched dolphins leaping in the Ganga a few months ago. He offered Central aid for the effort, which Chief Minister Nitish Kumar swiftly welcomed. The Centre will conduct research and conservation activities— to be helmed by Professor RK Sinha, popularly referred to as ‘dolphin man’, of Central University of Bihar.
Professor Sinha, who is chairperson of a working group for dolphin conservation set up by the Central Government and also a member of the National Ganga Basin Authority, knows he has his work cut out for him. Conservation challenges have multiplied at an alarming rate since he wrote his PhD thesis on Gangetic ecology back in 1988. “Declining river flow is the most significant threat to dolphins of the Ganga,” he says, “Besides, various toxic chemicals have entered the river ecosystem through industrial effluents, agricultural pesticides, etcetera. The erosion of habitat due to the declining flow and the high content of toxics in dolphin tissue—these are a matter of grave concern.”▪