Successful community-based conservation initiatives have contributed to significant expansion of the endangered Indus River dolphin, says a survey published by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on Thursday. The report adds that these river dwellers, one of the world’s rarest mammals and the second most endangered freshwater river dolphin, still face severe threats to their population.
A month-long survey by WWF revealed that there are now approximately 1,816 Indus River dolphins in Pakistan. This is 50 percent more than the 1,200 dolphins estimated after WWF’s first census in 2001, when the species appeared to be heading for extinction.
The survey was conducted between March 20 and April 13 during low water season when the dolphins are most concentrated and easiest to count. A team of 20 scientists and researchers from WWF-Pakistan, Zoological Survey of Pakistan and provincial wildlife departments travelled in four boats covering the Indus River dolphin range from the Chashma to Sukkur barrages. Data was recorded by four observers watching from viewing platforms on two boats that travelled downstream in tandem.
Read more: Dolphins, Technology and the Indus River
“Significantly increasing the number of Indus River dolphins over the past 15 years is a remarkable achievement considering the ever-increasing pressure on the river and the species, and shows that progress is possible when governments, conservationist and communities work together,” said Hammad Naqi Khan, director general of WWF-Pakistan, in a statement.
“While celebrating this national success, we must not forget that there are still less than 2,000 Indus River dolphins in the world and we need to redouble our efforts to tackle all the threats to their survival and ensure their numbers continue to rise,” he added.
The Indus River dolphin, also known as the blind dolphin, has been marked as endangered in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. According to WWF-Pakistan, all remaining dolphins are in the lower reaches of the Indus River in Pakistan, except for a tiny isolated population of around 30 dolphins who live in the Beas River in India.
The dolphins are currently confined to just 20 percent of their natural habitat range due to the construction of numerous dams and barrages along Indus River and their population has gradually declined due to worsening water pollution, poaching, stranding in irrigation canals and accidentally getting caught in fishing nets.
To help conserve the species, WWF had spearheaded an innovative and collaborative approach by integrating research, effective law enforcement, and community engagement. Since 1992, WWF-Pakistan and the Sindh Wildlife Department have led a dolphin rescue programme, which has successfully saved 131 dolphins from being stranded in irrigation canals and safely released them back into the river. A dolphin monitoring network in collaboration with local communities has been set up and a 24-hour phone helpline has also been established.
“Indus River dolphin numbers would still be decreasing if it were not for the active participation of communities along the river. They are our eyes and ears and have helped bring these iconic animals back from the brink,” said Khan.
“Our efforts to save the dolphin are also critical for these communities since the species is an indicator of the health of the river, upon which tens of millions of people depend.”