Survey Raises Hope for India's Irrawaddy Dolphins

Hope is rising the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin can be saved in India after a survey showed more of the animals than before in a vast, brackish lagoon in the east of the country.

CHILIKA LAGOON, India -- Hope is rising the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin can be saved in India after a survey showed more of the animals than before in a vast, brackish lagoon in the east of the country.

Environmentalists say much more needs to be done to preserve the dolphins in Chilika Lagoon in India's eastern Orissa state, the largest lagoon population of the animals in the world.

But fears of their imminent disappearance appear to have diminished after a 2007 survey showed 135 of the little-known species of short-beaked dolphins in Chilika.

"It's an ideal habitat for the species, which prefers medium salinity," said Sudarshan Panda, head of the Chilika Development Authority. "We have done a lot of things for the dolphins and our activities are now showing results."

The Irrawaddy, or Orcaella brevirostris, lives in estuaries, rivers and shallow coastal marine waters in south and southeastern Asia and is a smaller relative of the Orca.

In 2004, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species voted to prohibit commercial trade in the Irrawaddy dolphin and placed it on Appendix I where it joined big cats and great apes.

The move was intended to prevent the easily-trained dolphin being removed from the wild for use in Asian water parks.

The light-grey mammals, which grow to just over 2 m (6 feet) in length rarely show themselves fully above the water -- a fin, flipper and nose all that usually emerges.

Experts say there is not even enough data about the shy mammals to give a reliable estimate of their global population. But lagoon populations in other places are falling, including in the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar which gave the species its name.

That makes preserving the Chilika group especially important.

Hope lies in the involvement of local communities in dolphin conservation. People around Chilika Lake on India's east coast have long considered the dolphins a blessing, and even today cast their nets near where dolphins are sighted.

They have also woken up to their financial value, after a group of foreign tourists got excited after spotting dolphins during a birdwatching trip in the late 1980s.

Tourism took off, and today more than 400 boats ply the southern section of the lake chasing the dolphins.

Scientists came too. A marine assessment in 1992 found around 20 dolphins in the lake, but the first systematic survey conducted in 2002 showed a population of 98.


Panda says surveys since then have shown the numbers steadily rising, but others are not so sure. Direct count surveys are not considered reliable, and trends difficult to extrapolate.

"The fact that monitoring is continuing is good but I wouldn't say the population is increasing or decreasing," said Dipani Sutaria, a marine biologist who has been studying the dolphins in Chilika since 2004 and says her own analysis suggests there may be 95 to 110 individuals.

In some years up to 15 dolphins have been killed in a single year by becoming entangled in fishing nets or being hit by the propellers of tourist boats.

Panda says the CDA is working hard to protect the animals. Boatmen have been asked to remain at least 50 metres from the animals, always stay behind a group to reduce the risk of collision and employ propeller guards.

Only three were found dead last year, but it's too early to declare victory, they say. Dolphins typically give birth to just one calf every three years and Sutaria says the small population in the lake can only absorb one or two deaths a year.

"We are very concerned," said Biswajit Mohanty of the Wildlife Society of Orissa. "We have to be careful to avoid even a single death since the population is so low."

There are no laws in place to enforce the guidelines. On a trip to the lake in mid-March, the rules were widely ignored.

Panda hopes for legislation soon, but says he also needs to consider the livelihoods of 200,000 people who depend on the lake, and cannot ban propeller boats as Mohanty would like.

Nevertheless the CDA is promoting alternative income generating activities to reduce the pressures of over-fishing.

Trees are being planted upstream in an attempt to reduce sedimentation, channels have been dredged and a fresh mouth opened to the sea to prevent siltation and shrinkage of the lake.

There are bigger problems too.

Widespread commercial aquaculture -- shrimp farming along the lake shores -- promoted by the World Bank in the 1960s is disrupting water flows, encouraging siltation and taking up valuable fish hatching sites, scientists say.

Beside the lake, a sign boldly declares "No Plastic Beyond This Point". It stands beside a row of shops selling water bottles and snacks for the tourists who flock to see the dolphins.

A pile of garbage in the lake mud just a few metres further on provides a graphic reminder of the challenges ahead.

Source: Reuters

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