Column: Save The Dolphins

By Ashutosh Mishra

Bhubaneswar: Carcasses of three Irrawaddy dolphins including a calf were found recently on the Pentha beach within Gahirmatha marine sanctuary limits. This should be a matter of concern for wildlife officials and Nature lovers alike because these man-friendly mammals are an endangered species covered under Schedule I of Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Forest officials surmise that the casualties were caused by rogue fishing vessels. Propellers of fishing trawlers and mechanized boats often hit turtles and other marine species resulting in deaths. But dolphins are different from other species inhabiting the sea in that they are highly eco-sensitive and happen to be slow breeders.

The famous Chilika lagoon created by the backwaters of the sea happens to be one of the favourite habitats of Irrawady dolphins but even there the population of the species is on the decline following intense human activity including boating. Chilika Development Authority (CDA), the body charged with the conservation and development of the lake, had developed a protocol for dolphin watching but it is hardly followed.

Dolphins, the flagship species of Chilika and a huge tourist draw, are also facing a threat in other water bodies of the state. The last dolphin census conducted in January this year threw up shocking figures. It showed that the population of these aquatic mammals has dipped from 469 in 2018 to 259 now.

The census covered most of the important aquatic ecosystems of the state including Chilika lake that straddles three districts, the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary and the Rushikulya river mouth in Ganjam. The count showed Gahirmatha as having state’s largest dolphin population with 126 of them found in its waters. But this number is much smaller compared to their count in Gahirmatha earlier.

After Gahirmatha Chilika lake had the next largest population of dolphins at 113 followed by the Rushukulya river mouth where 15 were counted. Among the various species of dolphins found in Odisha, Irrawaddy dolphins are unique in that they inhabit mostly brackish water bodies near coasts, river mouths and estuaries. That is what makes Chilika, Asia’s largest brackish water lake, their favourite haunt.

The total population of these animals in the world is estimated to be around 7500. They are considered threatened mainly because of the fact that they are slow breeders and highly sensitive. Anxiety caused by human interference and climate change could be important factors behind the drop in their numbers.

The dolphins come immediately under stress when chased by tourist-laden boats in Chilika lake, especially in the Satpada area where they are seen in large numbers. Over the years CDA has initiated a number of conservation measures including developing a dolphin watching protocol for boat operators. But driven by the greed for money boat operators try to take camera-wielding tourists as close to the dolphins as possible.

Steps like survey and identification of dolphin habitats in the lagoon for proper management have also been taken along with widening and deepening of the Magarmukh channel to facilitate the free movement of the mammals. But most important of all is curbing human interference so that dolphins can breed and live in peace. That is the best way of saving these beautiful creatures.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)