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Saving the freshwater dolphin is a life's work for a Bihar professor

Saving the freshwater dolphin is a life's work for a Bihar professor
Saving the freshwater dolphin is a life's work for a Bihar professor
The killing fields of Bihar. For scribes covering this lawless hinterland, it’s a cliche that scarcely outlives its utility. But it’s by far limited to the violence man commits on man. Few here have the time to see that it extends to the state’s rivers also, where a mammal of a different kind—the freshwater dolphin—is fighting an upstream battle against extinction. Their slaughter would’ve gone on unabated if not for the unstinting efforts of one man, Prof Ravindra Kumar Sinha.

Bihar’s rivers are home to more than half the freshwater dolphin population in the country, which isn’t saying much since there are less than 2,000 left in the country. It hasn’t been easy going for Prof Sinha, getting a riparian people to care about dolphins in the Ganges belt. Sinha runs the Dolphin Foundation with a six-member team, basically research scholars doing their doctorate under him. "I can’t physically patrol the area and stop the fishermen from killing the dolphins. What I can do is educate and convince them about the harmful fallout of killing them," he says. He concedes that he has not been able to stop the killings altogether, but his efforts have made a marked impact on their numbers, especially in Bihar.

Team member Dr Gopal Sharma says that in the year 1990-91 dolphins were being killed at the rate of 50-60 a year in the state, which fell to 20-25 by 1995-96. "It has become possible because of our continuous awareness programme," explains Dr Sharma, who himself worked on an ecological study of Gangetic dolphins for his thesis. However, the situation has since deteriorated, with commercial fishing taking a fresh toll on the dolphins.

Recently, the team’s efforts got a fillip when the Patna High Court, discussing a suo motu case, directed the state government to arrange for a secured habitat for the dolphins under the Wild Animals Protection Act, 1972[91]. Sinha is hopeful this will prove a safety net for the threatened mammals. The freshwater dolphin is an endangered species not just in India. They share a similar fate in China, where less than a dozen remain, Pakistan, Bangladesh and South America where in the Amazon they are found in their largest numbers, about 5,000. For all his work on the ground, Sinha is a strong votary of official support for conservation. He says the Centre should declare the freshwater dolphin a "symbol of India’s aquatic heritage" to stymie its "day-by-day extinction from the aqua map of the country". "If we don’t do it now, the time isn’t far away when we’ll see them only in books and on National Geographic," he says.

For Sinha, who teaches zoology in Patna’s Science College and has been active in the field since 1991, the conservation of the dolphin has become his life’s passion. His days consist of meetings with the fishermen on the banks of the Ganges to educate them, organising seminars, doing research and making status survey journeys. Sinha even claims to have come up with an oil substitute for dolphin oil—for the use of fishermen who kill the mammal just for the heck of it. He also had a big role to play in the setting up of the Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary in Bhagalpur, the country’s only such controlled ecosystem. Recently, he submitted a four-point action plan to the government, with recommendations that included patrolling against poaching; identification of areas of significant population; promoting eco-tourism as well as education and awareness.

The "dolphin man of India" has received several national and international awards including the prestigious Order of the Golden Ark from the Netherlands, but the journey hasn’t been easy. He has even been kidnapped four times by river pirates while on survey tours. Ironically, Sinha says funds have never been a constraint for his foundation with the Centre’s provisions seemingly enough for his dolphin protection mission. The only thing he needs, he says, is greater cooperation from the people who live along Bihar’s many rivers. His foundation can be contacted at: Prof Ravindra Kumar Sinha, Environmental Biology Laboratory, Department of Zoology, Patna University, Patna-800005. Tele Fax: 0612-688801 Email: rksinha@mail.girija.net.in.

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