Friday, October 09, 2009

Mr. Dolphin, Here They Come!

Lo and behold! India gets another National Symbol, this time an Aquatic Animal; yes, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh declared Gangetic River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) as India's National Aquatic Animal which now shares the limelight with such fellows as the Royal Bengal Tiger (National Animal) and Indian Peafowl (National Bird).

This decision was taken in the first meeting of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 5th October. The recommendation came from the Chief Minister of Bihar, Mr. Nitish Kumar. The Minister of Environment and Forests, Mr. Jairam Ramesh said that like the tiger as the national animal and peacock as the national bird, the government had declared dolphin as the national aquatic animal as it represented the health of the rivers, particularly the Ganga. He also said that by doing this the government was not only ensuring the survival of the species, but also sought to cleanse the river.

Which reminds me of the Tiger (Panthera tigris), the most celebrated member of Indian wildlife. India, which accounted for half of the world’s tiger population, declared it the national animal and launched Project Tiger in 1973. Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) was the National Animal of India until then. In an unashamed exhibition of opportunism, India dumped Lion (whose population had gone down beyond the point of no return) for the sake of Tiger. The population of Indian tigers was estimated at around 3500 then and it seems tigers flourished for sometime under the strong patronage and will power of Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

Times have changed, netas are bored with the charisma of the Tiger and no need to tell them when its time to swap boats. A recent census conducted by renowned Tiger expert Dr. Ullas Karanth and his team put the tiger numbers at 1411 and the numbers are getting fewer by the day. The Babus in the MoEF (Ministry of Environment & Forests) refused to accept these numbers and put the blame on the new methodology of Camera-trapping used. They argue that tigers are still aplenty and are encountered quite often in the Indian jungles.

Tell that to us mere mortals in South India, I pray! Here, the slight glimpse of a wild cat is considered as a blessing for a lifetime by many. Barring a few fortunate souls like my good friend Balu (Dr. Balakrishnan Peroth), most of us have not seen a wild tiger up close so that our claims lack self-conviction! Once Balu got so close to one huge cat for comfort that he scared it away while being busy at screaming his heart out. On his routine bird walk in the dense forests of Silent Valley in Kerala, he was circling a bend where thick bushes hampered his view, a well grown adult tiger came face-to -face within a yard of him. Balu bent backwards with a thunderous scream and the equally surprised cat shot away in no time. That scream was enough for such a careless, lazy Tiger like him!

One day, reserves are full of tigers; the next, none could be seen! Countries like China where tiger body parts are in great demand for use in traditional medicine and people like Mr. Sansar Chand who head the largest wildlife poaching network in India are not helping things either. Its becoming more and more evident that if things do not change drastically, our respected Mr. Tiger can call it a day soon! Those handsome black and orange stripes playing hide & seek among the greens and browns of Indian jungles would be gone forever, sigh!

What about Peacock (Pavo cristatus)? Has the coveted title helped him?! I doubt, rather I suspect that giving it so much fame by elevating it to the National Bird status has indeed spelt doom for Poor Pavo! How many of you have not had the good fortune of buying and keeping peacock feathers at home? Do you think the bird willfully donated its feathers for a good cause, that is, of decorating your beautiful home?! It was rumored that Dr. Salim Ali, India's Bird man, wanted the Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) to be the National Bird. Who knows why, bustard lacked charisma or the number theory which worked against the lion being applied here as well, bustard never won the race! May be it was good fortune for the poor bird, Indians never knew such a bird existed and it still exists!!

Coming back to our 'celebrity of the day': I think its an ominous sign for the Dolphin. Run for your life, man!! People are going to come for you in droves, be prepared! A conservative estimate puts the number of Ganges river dolphins (which are endemic to the Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems extending from the foot of the Himalayas to the tidal zone in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan) at around 1,500-2,000, 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.

By declaring dolphin as the national aquatic animal, the Government hopes not only to ensure the survival of the species but also seek cleansing of the river. The minister in his declaration had also said that just as the big cat is a symbol of a healthy ecosystem in forests, the presence of the river dolphin in a river system signifies a healthy aquatic life in rivers: 'Since the river dolphin is at the apex of the aquatic food chain, its presence in adequate numbers symbolizes greater biodiversity in the river system’.

Perhaps river dolphins face the threat of extinction more from habitat destruction (pollution and habitat fragmentation by dams and barrages) 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. Dolphins are very eager to be friendly with human beings so much so that they fail to understand when its time to flee! In some places like Denmark and Japan, these timid creatures are herded in huge numbers by fishermen in to narrow bays from where there is no escape. There they are brutally slaughtered just for fun! Dolphins' friendliness and timidness and their new-found popularity might as well spell their doom.

The Central Government has also announced a Rs. 15,000 Crore plan for cleaning up the Ganges over a span of ten years. It was proclaimed that increase in the number of dolphins in the Ganges would be the ‘One and Only Yardstick’ to gauge the success of the 15,000 crore 'Mission Clean Ganga’ project as these dolphins do not respond to captive breeding.

I for one, sincerely wish the efforts to bear fruit; will for once close my eyes towards those previous (precious) examples gone wrong. As they say, optimism is always the best virtue - at least it ensures you a good night's sleep!!


  1. As they say, optimism is always the best virtue - atleast it gives you a good night's sleep!!


  2. This Article was later published in the Newsletter of Malabar Natural History Society.


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