Protecting Pakistan’s endangered Indus River

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Southern Asia > Pakistan

Sindh Wildlife Department staff taking an Indus river dolphin (Platanista minor) for release. Pakistan.
© WWF-Canon / WWF-Pakistan / Uzma Khan

Summary

The Indus River dolphin is one of the world’s most endangered freshwater river dolphin. Only about 1,100 of this unique species exist today in the lower parts of the Indus River in Pakistan. Their numbers have declined as a result of dam construction along the river, which has split the population into small groups, as well as from water pollution, poaching and being accidentally caught in fishing nets.

WWF is working along the Indus River to monitor the dolphin populations and to improve their habitat. WWF staff have also been involved in rescue missions when individual dolphins become trapped in canals.

Background

The Indus river dolphin (Platanista gangetica minor) is endemic to the Indus river system of Pakistan. The species has been classified as endangered by IUCN, indicating that it faces a high risk of extinction in the near future.

A century ago, the Indus river dolphin was found from the Himalayan foothills to the estuary of the Indus and also in its 4 major tributaries, the Sutlej, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum. Dolphins in the delta, the far upstream range and the Indus tributaries have now been extirpated, or are present in such small numbers that populations are unlikely to be viable in the long-term. They only remain in 3 potentially viable groups, in the Indus main stem between Guddu and Sukkur barrages, Sindh province and between Guddu, Taunsa and Chashma barrages in Punjab province. The barrages present an almost insurmountable barrier to dolphin movements and the populations between the barrages are almost completely isolated from each other.

The reason for the dramatic decline in the Indus river dolphin distribution is due to a combination of many factors. The dolphin's habitat has been fragmented by the construction of numerous barrages. Large-scale removal of water for irrigation has concentrated pollutants, and reduced and modified available dolphin habitats.

Until the 1970s dolphins were actively hunted by the Mohanna tribe, which put pressure on populations in Sindh. However, a dolphin reserve was established in this region in 1974 and the animals are now protected in this area. Reduction in flow and the degree of annual flooding of the Indus has reduced productivity of the river. Barriers impede the breeding migrations of many fish species, and increased use of unsustainable fishing methods have caused a reduction in dolphin prey species. Every year dolphins become trapped in narrow irrigation channels, they can seldom return to the main channel unassisted and eventually die.

Monitoring of the Indus river dolphin populations has been the task of the Wildlife Departments of Sindh and Punjab. Annual surveys have been conducted for at least the past 10 years, however these have not always been conducted consistently, making it difficult to detect trends in population numbers. Surveys, conducted in June 1996, recorded 458 animals between Sukkur and Guddu barrages (Bhaagat 1999). In Punjab province in 1998, 100 animals were recorded between Guddu and Taunsa barrages and 31 between Taunsa to Chashma (Chaudhry et al 1999).

There are grave concerns about the vulnerability of such, small, isolated dolphin populations, particularly as Pakistan's human population continues to expand and pressure on precious water resources increases. Focussed and sustainable conservation measures must begin immediately if Pakistan is to preserve some biodiversity in the Indus river and ensure a safe future for the rare, endemic Indus river dolphin.

Objectives

1. Monitor dolphin populations to detect trends in abundance.

2. Protect dolphin habitats and work towards improvement of habitat quality.

3. Collect information on dolphin ecology to assist in the formulation of conservation measures.

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