Dolphins- aquatic Mammals, are one of the highly intelligent animals of the entire animal kingdom. With the largest Brain to Body size ration among the Cetaceans (Mammals of order Cetacea). Of the seven different species of Cetaceans, Nepal harbors the Endangered Ganges River Dolphin. The Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) is currently enlisted under protected species of Nepal as an Endangered species. The Ganges River Dolphin, once existed throughout the Indian sub-continent is at present restricted to few river system of the region. The closely related species of Platanista gangetica, Platanista gangetica minor is currently confined to Indus river in Pakistan. Due to various Anthropogenic causes the population of Gangetic Dolphin is rapidly declining. Few months ago, a team of ours under the Supervision of Dr. Mukesh Kumar Chalise (Mammal Expert) in collaboration with members of Dolphin Conservation Center, Kailali and locals of the same area, we conducted an estimation of the population of the freshwater River Dolphin in the region.
Few months before the counting, Kantipur daily had covered the news about the Dolphin census that was about to be carried out in few weeks. Since then the excitement was up and running, the population estimation which would turn out to be first of its kind, was far more better than what I had expected, and obviously who doesn’t like being featured in a National daily? that too as a Scientist undertaking an interesting and promising task. It actually took us about three weeks from the day of that publication to reach the field, due to technical difficulties.
The level of excitement never deflated, not only was I going to see a Dolphin for the first time, but I was about to board a plane for the first time as well, and to be honest I was more terrified than excited about the plane ride. The flight turned out to be good, just a small turbulence inside the could which for a fleeting moment I thought was end of it. I was looking at the landscape below, all at once the visibility was gone, all I could see was whiteness of thick dense clouds, the plane start to tumble, it wasn’t that hard but still it was my first time ever on a plane, I couldn’t help but cling on to the seats. After that I just wished for the plane to land as soon as possible. It was a fun ride though. Nepalgunj airport- welcomed us with a warmth, and specially for me the warmth reached down the chill in the spines of the fear. LANDED- and safe!
We still had a long way to go, all the way to Lamki and then to Dhungana tole. We took a local bus to Kohalpur and then took another one to Lamki. Of course we had to stop at Chisapani to eat fish, amidst the hunger raging inside the stomact, we decided to eat at Chisapani, Daal Bhaat and Machcha ko Jhol! The fish wasn’t as good as it used to be. From there we went on to Lamki chowk, and met Bijaya Raj Shrestha of the Dolphin Conservation Center (DCC). His father Bhojraaj Shrestha, also known as Guleli baje started the grass-root level conservation of Dolphins in the area. He started it all and now the whole area is devoted to conservation of Dolphins. His son Bijaya has been following his dad for years! From Lamki we went to the Dhungana tole, we had no idea where it was, I had been to Kailali previously, to Tikapur park to be precise, but I had no idea where Dhungana tole was. We did ask our electric rickshaw driver but he had no idea as well, nor did the policeman in Hulaki road chowk. But someone from the Dolphin Conservation Society came to pick us up and then dropped us off at Dhungana tole.
What I had thought was we’d end up in this big “Tole” with hotels and stuff but instead it was just a small village-y place with few house right on the side of the river. After about fifteen minutes of introduction and all one of the members of the conservation center asked us if we wanted to go see the Dolphins. Now here’s the catch, to see an Endangered species in the wild is usually a tough task and one like Dolphin? I thought it would be even tougher, but surprisingly, less than a minute into the walk along the banks of confluence of Pathraiya and Mohana river, I saw 2 Dolphins in the river, jumping to grasp some air. The excitement reached whole another level. I was really expecting it to be a wild-goose hunt kind of situation but it was the other way around. My expectations of “In the search of Dolphins” quickly turned to the Dance of Dolphins! We just spent the evening on the river bank observing the Dance of the Dolphins and also the sounds of them breathing “Susu Susu” it is for that peculiar sound they are called “Sosh” or “Susu” in Nepal. I had finally seen a Dolphin in the wild, one of the list to cross out from the checklist of animals to see. It was a clam and warm evening as the sun was setting down in the horizon far far away the Dolphins were still surfacing around. With the night fall we went back to our camp, our camp for the next few days was supposed to be a “Home Stay” at the local people’s house in Dhungana tole.
The next morning, we woke up early in the morning, with an excitement of seeing more Dolphins, me and a friend of mine woke up early to go Bird watching around the Village leading up to the river to turn it into a Dolphin watching session. Following the river bank we ended up at the same confluence, we saw 3 Dolphins on the way there. We stayed there for a long time, our official counting session was to start the next day, it was our time to explore the area and of course observe the Dolphin. The local had arranged a canoe for us, so we went into the canoe and then right in the habitat of the Dolphins. From the canoe we could see Dolphins dancing around us in all direction. At that instance, in about 2 hours we saw 12 different Dolphin around that single confluence.
Canoeing down the river in search of Dolphins
It was time for us to leave the waters and Dolphins behind and then join in with other members of the Dolphin Conservation Center. We had a small introduction and training session lined up for the locals who were about to participate in the census. With the help of DCC a small inaugural program was held at the DCC, Dhungana Tole, whereby Dr. Chalise gave a short presentation on Dolphins and their conservational status in Nepal and elsewhere. After his speech, various members of DCC gave their welcome speech, then came my turn to talk about Dolphins and conservation of Dolphin is necessary for so many resasons. Finally Dr. Chalise again took the podium to explain methodology to the participants. After the end of the training session we again made our way to the banks of the river to take a good shot of the Dolphin. And trust me when I say this, Taking a photo of Dolphin is not as easy as you’d think or as I had thought. They only come to the surface for a very short time and you barely know where they will pop up! I couldn’t come up with a single good shot in 4 days. With the nightfall we returned to our base, tomorrow we had a long day ahead of us. Had to reach the individual station at 7 am. I was assigned to reach 5 different station to monitor and take relative data from the field including the coordinates of the location. I think I walked more than 30 km that single day. We had 16 different locations with 3 individuals stationed at one of those locations. Who were supposed to take data the whole day long starting 7 am in the morning. I started from Dhungana tole then walking along the Pathraiya, I went to Mohana- Pathraiya Confluence, I spent about 10-15 minutes there, by the time I was there the counters stationed there had counted 4 Dolphins, by the time I was there I saw five, and it was time for me to move on, as I had to walk all they way to the end where Mohana river met Karnali.
On the way we passed other counters attentively observing any sign of movements in the river. We were accompanied by a local and a member of DCC, Bhoj Raaj Dhungana , who gave us an amazing insight to the life of Dolphins. No matter how much you read, unless you live close to the animals you’ll never know enough about their behaviors. Like business houses use the phrase “Customers are the King” in such type of wildlife study, Indigenous knowledge/local people are the king.
One of the interesting that I learned that day came as a surprise. It no surprise that those rives are crawling with Crocodiles, both Mugger and Gharials. I saw few of them on the surface basking in the morning sun, and obviously with the sheer size and power of the Crocodile I had assumed that the crocodiles (muggers) would prey upon the Dolphins, but strangely that turned out to be false. Apparently, which I saw myself later on, the crocodile actually avoids the Dolphins, almost as if they’re scared of the Dolphins. It was an interesting insight into the life of a Dolphin. He talked about so many other such things as we made it to the Mohana-Karnali confluence. I stayed there for a while observing the Dolphins and then to the other side of the river of which around 1 km still lied inside the Nepali border. From there we crossed the river and into the border, stopped at one of the local tea shops to get some tea.
On the way Bhoj Raaj Dhungana had told us that no events of illegal hunting of Dolphins had taken place in that area for decades. How the DCC has been effective in its attempt to conserve the Dolphins of the area. You can see it in the energy of the face of the local people there, even in the face of children, they are associated with the Dolphins, they think of it as it their own, something they must protect and conserve. You can sense a force that lies in the whole village, their love for the beautiful creature is something appreciable, well its more than appreciable. It has to be one of the best local level conservational effort in case of any Endangered animals. But while we were at the tea house on the other side of the border, we mentioned that were looking for Dolphins, made friends with the tea-shop owner and then asked him few questions. After a while we learned that the effort on the other side is not as much as the effort inside our border. How would that affect us? How would that affect our Dolphins? Well they migrate during the winter and according to the tea-shop owner the Dolphins are killed during that time. He went on to say that you’d could get Dolphin Oils in local markets in India, they openly sale it, at times with banner that says ” Sosh ka Tel”. Regardless of all the efforts inside our border we are left with uncertainty if or not our Dolphins will survive the winter. Before reaching the tea-shop we were all excited and happy about the census, we personally had counted 24 Dolphins so far along the way and I was more than happy that their effort of conserving the Dolphin had paid off. But once I heard the tea-shop owners story, I had long face, I was devastated to learn about the situation there. But the shop keeper did say, not sure because he knew we were working on Dolphins, that it was a bad thing and that people shouldn’t be allowed to do such stuff, I guess he was aware about the consequences. After spending some time in the tea-shop we had to make our way back to the camp, we decided to do quick run-over at all the stations to see how everyone else was doing.
Back in the camp, we had no idea what was the status of the census from other stations. Because some of them were so far away that the counters from those stations couldn’t make it to the camp. So far we had a good population estimatondata of all the fields that were easily accessible. Personally, I had seen 24 Dolphins that day, it was a good day, learned a lot, walked a lot, almost as if I walked half of Kailali by foot.
It was a great experience, learning all those stuff from the locals, living with the locals and of course living the Dolphins. We still had one last thing to do, a closing ceremony where by we thanked all the locals for their support, guidance and most importantly their hospitality and never ending energy. All the participants were given a certificate on reeving the training and of course for the participation in the population estimation. By that time we had all the data from all 16 stations. It was more than we had expected, which made it better than we had expected. Even though we stayed only for 4 days, it had almost felt like home, the hospitality, environment it was surreal, but it was time to move on, and that too with a heavy heart. We had to leave the next day, for the rest of the day we had in front front of us, we went back to the river and spent more than 4 hours just looking for the Dolphins and enjoying with the locals.
Next morning we packed our bags and headed home, leaving Dhungana tole and Dolphins behind, made our way to Lamki and then back to Kathmandu.
By now, and even when you read the news all of you must have wondered how do you actually count the Dolphins? How are the Dolphins not repeated? Here’s how!
So basically there are various methodology that you can use for population estimation, but for aquatic mammals like Dolphins, when you can’t actually capture and count the individual dolphins what you can do is use a different method to estimate the population of the animal. So what we did was, we had 16 different stations, where we had 3 person team. All of our watches were synced a day before, that means all of the participants watches read the same time. Starting at 7 each individual recorded the number of Dolphins they saw at one instant. Lets say a counter at station saw 5 Dolphins at 7 am, and another at Stations B counted 5 Dolphins at 7 am! Then we can infer that there are at least 10 Dolphins, since same Dolphin can’t be at two different place at once. The Dolphins resurface every at an interval of one and half minutes to two minutes, less than one minute for Infants! Also the Dolphins at all stations might not jump at the same time, lets say, of 7 am! Some might not jump at all or some may jump a little earlier or late. But the thing is the Dolphin can’t reach another station within the 1 minute because the stations were far away from each other. Some more then 3 4 km away! Another confusion might lie in the fact that how would you recognize the Dolphins to be different? Once you look carefully you can recognize the Dolphins easily, of course you’re to going to recognize their faces but their body size, coloration will help you determine different individuals. For example Infants and Sub adults vary in size, so does male and female. That is how you differentiate the different Dolphins! And the infants usually play together, and if you see 4 infants surfacing together and playing together, there are exactly 4 mothers because a mother Dolphin gives birth to one dolphin at a time, twins are very very rare and we can neglect that rarity! The final count of Dolphin we had was the number that we got from the exact time out of the survey all day long, the maximum number of Dolphins seen in the closest proximity of time interval in all the stations was the final count of Dolphins since no individual Dolphins could have been in two places at once. This is the way to do the population estimation, and the estimate we have is the minimum number of Dolphins that are in the river! I could definitely be more, but it cannot be less that that because we saw exactly that number of Dolphins in the river at the same time! What’s the number? Well you have to wait for the official publication of the report to know how many Dolphins are there! I cannot disclose that from this blog! Personally I saw 24 different Dolphin in a single day! And 12 of them in a single location!
Dr. Mukesh Kumar Chalise
Dhirendra Bahadur Chand
Bijaya Raj Shrestha
Newspaper extract about the Dolphin population estimation
Inaugural program: The office of Dolphin Conservation Center is not a state of the art facility, its just that small hut, from where all the efforts on Dolphin Conservation are carried out! You don’t need the warmth of an office or five star hotel to conserve a species which is in critical need of conservation
An extract from a Newspaper that suggests that the Dolphins are gone!
One of the stations with the participants (Counters)
Watching the Dolphins from the Canoe
Dolphin surfacing the water to breathe!
This is the only shot that I could take where the Dolphin looks like a Dolphin!