It was the 15th rescue in five years involving a whole posse of experts and specialists. The nearly 9-foot pregnant female Gangetic Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) found itself stuck in the Sharda Sahayak canal in Amethi district. There was water and food but for the dolphin there is often no way to return to its wide home range.
© Ravindra Kumar Sinha
The dolphin gave the rescue team a good chase up and down over four days, covering nearly 100 km. Nicknamed 'Maharani' (Queen) by the team, she was finally caught and transported to a release site before being safely introduced back into a section of the Sarju River which has a dolphin population.
The TSA/WCS India and forest department of Uttar Pradesh was behind the operation.
An Endangered animal under the IUCN Red List as well as India's National Aquatic Animal, Gangetic Dolphins breed every two to three years, making it all the more important for the team to rescue the dolphin without exerting the least amount of stress.
Dolphins usually enter into canals during the winter months as the water levels from monsoon goes down. They follow fish that get disorientated due to the changing river currents near canal mouths. And the canal entrances are designed in such a way for water flow that they easily come into it but then cannot come out again due to the slope.
While there isn’t any lack of food as fish come into the canal as well, it’s usually the drastically reduced swimming range, along with local people harassing the dolphins, chasing and throwing stones that usually ends up killing them.
Hence they are rescued and returned mostly back to the Ghaghara River (TSA usually follows the sites suggested by the UPFD before deciding upon a release site) which has a healthy dolphin population. Even during rescues, crowds make a lot of noise; this time too as seen when the dolphin surfaced. Some people were even throwing large rocks and stones as she surfaced in shallower waters in the middle of the operation.
The rescue involves using large nets of two types, one cotton net and one thick mosquito-net type. The team first chooses an easy access point which is the shortest distance from the canal to the road where the transport vehicle is parked as well as the slope from the river is not too steep. The team splits in half where both teams set up each of the nets in a way to enclose the animal and then the team with the mosquito net begins to move towards the other team, shortening the distance. Eventually, the animal moves towards the first team where it is eventually caught by hand.
It is then placed on a metal cot with a foam mattress and lifted up to the truck after which it is transported to the release site.
The main aspect to take care of is for it to not turn on its side as the weight of the animal ends up closing the blowhole. Also, the animal must be constantly hydrated. During the entire transport, a drum full of water is kept in the truck and the animal is covered with a blanket and constantly kept hydrated. Tummy rubs on the side help calm them down.
During the latest rescue, TSA’s resident veterinarian Dr. Ashish Singh was routinely keeping a check on her heart rate and after showing initial signs of stress, she returned to a regular heart rate. He even detected arrhythmia related to pregnancy, confirming suspicions that she was pregnant.
She was released at a site in Faizabad into the Sarju River - a tributary of the Ghaghara river. The Forest department officials chose the site having often observed several dolphins there, confirming that it was an ideal site. Post release, the rescue team waited until she surfaced again to make sure she was ok. The dolphin did surface about ten seconds after, bringing cheer to the entire team.
This was the 15th rescue in last few years in the region.
Gangetic female dolphins can reach a size of 2.67 m. Once found in large schools, now they are found alone or in twosomes. They have been losing their habitat, mostly to dams and irrigation projects which result in declining water in the rivers. The sound of motorised boats that run along the rivers, in increasing numbers, is also suspected to affect the communication among dolphins.
There are fewer than around 3000 Gangetic dolphins left in India. They are among the four river dolphins found globally. Baiji, a freshwater dolphin found in China was driven to extinction due to human activities.
A recent study published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa indicates a decline in the species inhabiting Sunderbans due to increased salinity and decreased freshwater flow.
Compiled by Rishika Dubla