Rivers in Nepal are treated as goddesses, so why are the creatures found within them not given the same reverence? The Nepalese believe that their rivers are the “ever flowing and inspiring source of beauty, abundance and infinite adventure” yet one of the most iconic animals ever to have inhabited them – the Ganges River dolphin – is on the very brink of extinction despite national and international legislation that is meant to protect them. Everyone is aware of the terrible humanitarian crisis that is currently affecting Nepal as a result of the recent earthquakes to hit the country, few know the ugly truth about their rapidly declining dolphin population.
Categorised as “Endangered” by the IUCN since 1996, dolphins were once abundant in Nepal throughout the Koshi, Narayani, Karnali and Mahakali Rivers. Due to habitat destruction, the over-exploitation of prey species, destructive and intensive fishing practices, industrial run-off and other forms of pollution and a wide range of other human disturbances, the number of dolphins has been steadily declining over the years and today only a handful remain.
The biggest threat to their continued survival has been the construction of dams and irrigation structures throughout the Nepalese river systems. Not only has this led to a reduction in available and suitable habitat including a lowering of the water depth through increased sedimentation and reduced water flow (these dolphins prefer deeper waters) but the reduced available habitat leads to an increased vulnerability to the many human activities. Importantly, the river barrages have resulted in dolphin populations being isolated from each other leading to the possibility of inbreeding depression or the worst case scenario, a complete lack of breeding.
Without an immediate and concerted conservation effort, the dolphins of Nepal will almost certainly become extinct in the near future. To ensure the success of any effort, local communities must be involved and as eco-tourism is one of the highest income generating activities in Nepal what better a way than this to help protect the remaining dolphins and ensure their conservation into the future?
According to a local Nepalese dolphin researcher, after surveys in 2013/2014 the best estimate of remaining dolphins in Nepal’s rivers is less than 30 individuals … a figure way less than the critically endangered vaquita or Maui’s dolphin that we hear so much about. Are we going to quietly witness the loss and permanent extinction of this fragmented sub-species?