The Blind Tiger of the Ganges

The Gangetic river dolphin, often called the tiger of the Ganges, is critically endangered due to pollution, dams, and other threats. To protect them, India has declared them the national aquatic animal, launched Project Dolphin,’ and created sanctuaries, emphasising their conservation as a national priority.

The Gangetic river dolphin, also called the tiger of the Ganges, inhabits primarily the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system of India and Bangladesh. Dolphins are usually marine, but some can be found in rivers like the Amazon, Indus, Mekong, and Ganges. Unfortunately, all these dolphins are endangered. In fact, the Yangtze river dolphin was declared functionally extinct in 2006. With less than 3500 numbers left in the wild, the Gangetic river dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica) is also critically endangered.

These Gangetic river dolphins are shy, smaller than their oceanic cousins, have long snouts with sharp teeth, and a large melon-like head. Interestingly, these mammals are blind but are expert hunters due to their excellent echolocation abilities.

The Gangetic river dolphins were once found along the entire stretch of Ganga and all its tributaries, up to the Himalayas. However, pollution, dams and barrages, poaching, and accidental killing by fishing nets have restricted the distribution of these dolphins to small pockets of the Ganga and its tributaries in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

To conserve the Gangetic river dolphins, the Government of India has declared it as the national aquatic animal of the country. This mammal is listed in the IUCN’s red list and the Schedule I of Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972, which means that hunting, trade or harming this animal attracts harsh punishments. The government of India on the occasion of the 74th Independence Day on 15 August 2020 also announced Project Dolphin’ to boost conservation of both river and oceanic dolphins. A stretch of the Ganges river between Sultanganj and Kahlgaon in Bihar has been declared a dolphin sanctuary and named Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary, the first of its kind. Dolphins also enjoy a non-human personhood status, forbidding their captivity and use for entertainment.

The Gangetic river dolphin is India’s proud possession and needs all our efforts to prevent it from meeting a fate similar to that of the Yangtze river dolphin.

About the Author

Ankur Jamwal is part of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability at Azim Premji University.