LAHORE - World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) has launched community outreach programme for seeking public support to protect critically endangered Blind Dolphin in their most populous habitat in the Indus River Basin from Guddu to Sukkar Barrage.

Although WWF-Pakistan has taken a number of initiatives for community uplift to reduce dependence of locals on natural resources, community outreach programme focused on tribes not covered by Community Based Organisations (CBOs).

“WWF is approaching tribes where CBOs are not working. We educate them and seek their support to rescue Dolphin stranded in irrigation channels during canal closure. CBOs and public at large inform nearest information centre of WWF on seeing a stranded Dolphin in a canal, the special team rescue the rare species on a customised ambulance. These CBOs and villagers catching fish in canals are helpful in rescuing stranded Dolphins”, said Coordinator Indus River Dolphin Conservation Project Uzma Noreen, adding, that the WWF has so far rescued 112 Dolphin from 10 main irrigation canals generating from Guddu and Sukkar Barrages and dozens of sub canals during the last 10-12 years. 

The Indus River Dolphin is designated as 'endangered' in the IUCN Red List. It is also listed in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna). The Indus River Dolphin is a protected animal in provincial wildlife legislations in Pakistan listed in Schedule III; which is a category of high protection.

WWF - Pakistan initiated the Indus River Dolphin Conservation Project to protect the endangered cetacean. They are achieving this through improvement of livelihood and creating awareness among fishermen community. In Sindh, the Indus Dolphin Game Reserve is a notified protected area between Guddu and Sukkur Barrages. It hosts the highest number of Indus River dolphins.

WWF - Pakistan also rescues stranded dolphins trapped in canals and releases them back into the main river with the help of Sindh Wildlife Department.

According to an estimate, there are 857 Dolphin from Guddu to Sukkar Barrage, 465 from Taunsa to Guddu Barrage, 96 from Chashma to Taunsa Barrage and 34 from Sukkur to Kotri Barrage. In 2006, population of Dolphin was recorded 1293 (Guddu – Sukkur), 52 (Taunsa-Guddu), 121 (Chashma-Taunsa, 4 (Sukkur-Kotri) and 1 (Jinnah-Chashma). In 2001, population of Dolphin was recorded 725 (Guddu – Sukkur), 259 (Taunsa-Guddu), 84 (Chashma-Taunsa) 18 (Sukkur-Kotri) and 2 (Jinnah-Chashma).

Barrages on the river are the main cause of its highly fragmented habitat. Protecting and conserving Indus River Dolphin in all river sections is of equal significance for likely survival of this species.

The Indus River Dolphin has unique side swimming behavior but its movement is difficult to observe due to muddy water of the Indus River. Indus dolphins cannot see, so they find their prey and swim in the muddy water by using the power of echolocation. Indus river dolphins are found in small groups, in which mother and calves stay very close. Indus river dolphins can live up to 30 years and mature between the ages of 6 to 10 years.

During high flow season, gates of irrigation canals are usually open and dolphins can easily enter.  The Indus River Dolphin, when it enters the irrigation canal system during canal closure, cannot come back to the main river mostly because they are stranded in small water pools and entanglement in fishing nets. WWF – Pakistan and the Sindh Wildlife Protection Department have been rescuing dolphins since the 1990s whenever they are trapped in small water pools in canals; saving a total of 112 dolphins so far.

The hunting of Indus River Dolphin in order to extract oil which was used in medicines by locals was reported in history. Dolphins were also killed in upper reaches of the Indus River for the same purpose. Lack of awareness among local communities is also a cause of dolphins being hunted, particularly in areas where people are not familiar with this animal. Direct mortality caused by intensive fishing and by-catch is the most critical threat to river cetaceans and may drive their populations to extinction.

A significant increase is observed in illegal fishing practices in between Guddu and Sukkur barrages in the past two years; these include use of pesticide poisoning to maximize fish catch and overnight fishing nets.  The altered fishing system in Sindh which considerably increased the number of licenses has also amplified the impact of fishing practices on the Indus River Dolphin.

Water pollution is also a serious threat to existing populations of the Indus River Dolphin.  In low water season, the quality of available habitat is deteriorated. When flushing effect decreases due to low water, the level of pollution increases. Heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers on agricultural lands adds chemicals into the Indus River through runoff water, polluting the habitat of Dolphin.