Sukkur (Pakistan) (AFP)
Freshwater dolphins are thriving in part of Pakistan’s main river after a helping hand from fishermen mobilized to defend a rare endangered species.
Identifiable by their saw-shaped beaks, Indus dolphins once swam from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea, but now mostly congregate over a 180-kilometer (110-mile) length of the waterway in the south. from the province of Sindh.
A glimpse of a dolphin crossing the muddy water to seek air is a regular sight along the mighty river, but most of the nearby villagers were unaware their neighbors were on the verge of extinction.
“We had to explain that this was a unique species that can only be found in the Indus and nowhere else,” Abdul Jabbar, who gave up fishing for a work in the dolphin rescue team, on the banks of the Dadu Canal, which he patrols by motorcycle.
Decades of uncontrolled fishing and habitat loss from pollution and man-made dams saw the dolphin population drop to around 1,200 at the turn of the century.
# photo1 They are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which says their numbers have declined by more than 50% since the 1940s.
– Dolphins hotline –
In an effort to reverse the fate of mammals, Pakistani wildlife officials have launched a thorough door-to-door awareness campaign with the local fishing community on the riverbanks and arterial canals.
They offered advice on dolphin-friendly nets and warned against harmful and illegal poison fishing – the practice of using chemicals to kill small fish used for poultry feed.
# photo2 The World Wide Fund for Nature has also offered one million rupees ($ 6,300) in loans, encouraging fishermen to start alternative businesses.
With the help of the provincial wildlife department, they have set up a dolphin-watching network of 100 volunteers and a handful of paid staff, as well as a 24-hour helpline that villagers can access. call if they see a dolphin in distress.
Jabbar’s commitment is now unlimited.
He recently missed the birth of his child when a dolphin got trapped in one of the river channels.
“The doctors were getting ready for the Caesarean and I needed to be with my wife. But when the call came, I rushed that night to save the dolphin, ”he told AFP.
The latest survey, from 2017, showed the number had rebounded to around 1,800 and wildlife officials expect the population to have increased further since then.
– Decreasing territory –
Local legend has it that the first Indus dolphin was once a woman, transformed by the curse of a holy man angry that she forgot to feed him one day.
Previous generations believed that dolphins – known locally as bullen – were cursed.
They have evolved to be functionally blind, allowing a keen sense of sonar as they traverse muddy river waters in search of prey.
Harmful fishing practices aren’t the only dangers dolphins face.
Every January, when water levels are at their lowest, channel gates are closed for cleaning, creating pools and lagoons that become deadly traps for stranded marine life.
Head of the Department of Wildlife, Adnan Hamid Khan, told AFP that the recent steady increase in the number of dolphins was a “success story”.
“But with a larger population, there are food shortages, decreased range of motion – their breeding ground and territory has shrunk. “
Indus dolphins were first threatened during British colonial rule when dams were built to control the flow of the waterway, and later because of the release of dangerous chemicals when factories flourished along from its shores.
Raw sewage from rapidly expanding cities is also being dumped into the water, Khan said.
But with the fishermen on their side, there is hope for the species.
“Now we are saving dolphins with as much dedication as we would with a human being,” said Ghulam Akbar, another volunteer instructor who has also turned to on-farm fishing in an attempt to limit its impact on the sea. river.
“They breathe like us humans. Every compassionate man should save them. “
© 2021 AFP