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Dolphins, Technology and the Indus River

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ITU has partnered with WWF-Pakistan for ICT-enabled solutions for nature conservation
by Waqas A. Khan

Madiha and Mujtaba’s parents were anxious. Both their children were blind and depressed. The couple felt that their children needed motivation so that they did not spend their lives consumed by their disability.

The parents found a unique way for the children to understand that they were different from their peers, but not inferior. They took them to a special show in Karachi, where the children met Hope, a blind dolphin.

Since both children and the dolphin couldn’t see each other, it was important for them to communicate through touch. Anna, Hope’s trainer, facilitated the meeting. After delicately touching Hope’s skin and hearing its sounds, Madiha turned to her parents and asked, “If a blind dolphin can swim a thousand miles in muddy waters without any help, why can’t I walk the same number of miles on the ground?”

The child turned to face the dolphin again and touched it once more. “It feels like a pontoon molded like a dolphin. It is soft and squishy,” she said.  Mujtaba, too, described his experience  with the dolphin in great detail.

Read more: Sperm Whales Spotted in Pakistani Waters

Hope, a river dolphin and less celebrated than her marine cousins, remained silent during their meeting. If Hope could speak, she would tell the children about her Indus River dolphin friends who are vanishing quickly. Perhaps she did drop a hint about the state of river dolphins in Pakistan, because as the children were leaving the show, Mujtaba told newsmen, “I hope someone comes and saves these magnificent creatures before they  disappear forever.”

Mujtaba’s wish may yet come true because a year later,  on June 12, 2017, an agreement was signed between World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Information Technology University, Lahore (ITU) to collaborate on a common objective of fostering multidisciplinary research for nature conservation in Pakistan.

ITU Vice Chancellor Dr Umar Saif and WWF-Pakistan Director General Hammad Naqi Khan signed agreement on behalf of their respective organizations.  The three-year-long collaboration will not just focus on River Indus but will also monitor and track blind dolphins in four other rivers of the world (Ganges, Yangtze, Mekong, and Amazon).

ITU has set up the Laboratory for Bio-inspired Simulation and Modeling of Intelligent Life (BiSMiL Lab) where ICT-enabled research and conservation efforts for the Indus River Dolphin is underway.

The science of conservation

Talking to MIT Review, BiSMil Lab Director Suleman Mazhar said, “We are studying properties of the biological sonar system that the river dolphin uses in shallow waters. This work has potential application in environmental conservation, maritime security, monitoring of underwater and submerged structures (for example, dams and seaports), underwater archaeology and development of navigation devices for blind people. As part of this study, our lab is also providing consultancy to Mott MacDonalds Pakistan and Sindh Barrages Improvement Program to develop a plan for a bio-acoustic study of dolphins and fisheries. This is being done for improvement of Sukkur and Guddu barrages under an Asian Development Bank grant.”

“We are supporting one final year project on the development of an autonomous underwater vehicle for river waste and irrigation canal monitoring. As a result of the collaboration with WWF-Pakistan, we completed census of the river dolphin population in various seasons, with a special focus on the Chashma-Taunsa section of the River Indus. Although the results are being analysed, I can say that statistically speaking, the dolphin population has risen. We are also developing low-cost acoustic alarm systems to assist rescue efforts for stranded dolphins. A part of the project will focus on fisheries stock assessment using bio-acoustics so that we can provide policy recommendations on sustainable fisheries activity,” he added.

When asked that if the project will consider GPS tagging of a sample size of Indus dolphins, he said, “GPS-tag punching is not being considered at the moment. Passive acoustic systems that we have developed can be used to see their movement at various times for collection of data. These systems can identify underwater dolphin locations and can be used for site-fidelity studies. Moreover, these systems enable the study of other animals. Tags are not being considered because they can only track one animal at a time, though for a longer duration.”

The ITU-WWF partnership will help provide dolphins a safe exit if they find themselves stranded in a canal through acoustic alarms in about two years.

As canals dry out when the flood season draws to a close, dolphins face difficulty in returning to the main channel and are often reported by local villagers. The project will also use an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) for underwater survey missions in canals and rivers to detect and map potential hazards for dolphin lives.

The River Indus Dolphin

The River Indus Dolphin is recorded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on their Red List of Threatened Species. It is the second most threatened cetacean on the planet. It is assessed that there are just around 1,200 River Indus Dolphins remaining.

Presently, there are a couple of associations trying to preserve the dolphin. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working on safeguard missions and campaigns to raise awareness for lessening contamination in the waterway of Indus River. Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) disallows chasing and exchange of many threatened species, including the river dolphin.

There are numerous dangers to their survival. Neglectful and broad fishing diminishes their access to prey. Additionally, they are inadvertently caught in fishing nets which can cause fatalities. Deforestation along river is causing sedimentation which corrupts the dolphin’s living space.

Another consideration in their decline is the development of cross-stream structures, for example, dams and floods. Most of the dolphins die when “locked” into canals that emerge from these dams at a time when canals are closed or are suffering from water shortage.

The Indus River Dolphin has a long nose and a stocky body. It has a low triangular protuberance on its back in place of a “genuine” dorsal fin. It is dark brown in shading, once in awhile with a pinkish midsection. The eyes are small, looking like pinhole openings over the mouth. The Indus River dolphin measures between 1.5 – 2.5 metres and weighs about 80-90 kg . It is found only in freshwater, living in main channels.

Waqas A Khan is a PhD scholar and a Fellow of International Centre for Journalists in Washington, DC, USA. He can be reached on Twitter at: @wacaskhan, and on his website:


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