The last call

Now you see it, now you don’t…….the game continued through out the two hour ride between my brother and me. The year was 1979- we were onboard a ferry plying from Kamalabari in Majuli  to Nimati Ghat – on either side of the Brahmaputra while  on a visit to Jorhat from Itanagar- the newly formed capital of Arunachal Pradesh, where our father had just been posted. The car was sandwiched between a motley collection of bicycles, passengers, livestock, goods and tiny stalls selling local snacks, quickly lapped up by the passengers. We climbed onto the upper deck of the ferry and discovered to our delight, this newly found amusement. It disappeared and appeared- again and again, somersaulting into the air- joined now by three, four and five of them,  throwing up spray before diving with all the grace of ballerinas back into the water and racing far into the horizon. Soon there were dozens of them swimming around and diving in and out of water in a jig of joie de vivre.

This was my first introduction to the river dolphin, the Platanista Gangetica, commonly known as the Xihu in Assamese. This extremely docile and graceful creature- an endangered schedule- I species under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, is one of the three surviving species of river dolphins that was once found abundantly in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems-a region encompassing a belt that includes India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.  Subsequent journeys to and fro the Brahmaputra, made the xihu more familiar even as our game continued.

The Brahmaputra and the Xihus are inseparable. Intricately linked with this land and its diverse culture, they are of cultural importance to Assam. They exist in myths and legends, in songs and traditions and often have deep spiritual value to local communities here. Heralding the Assamese New Year is the Spring Festival of Bohag Bihu whose songs almost invariably have references to the Xihu. Calling it Petukari, the Misings believe the Xihu to be their long lost daughter who committed suicide in the remote past. Further down, in its Gangetic abode, called Susuks by the Bengalis, this creature is believed to be the vahana (mount) of the Goddess Ganga. At the Sunderbans, it is the messenger of the Goddess of the forests, Bonbibi- roaming about the forests at high tide and telling her secrets as the tide ebbs.

Dolphins have always fascinated man and are perhaps the most intelligent animals next to humans. Breathing air, giving birth to babies, nursing their young ones, they are very similar to humans and also have a strange affinity for man. From ancient Greece to the present day, stories are many of dolphins that have guided lost soldiers to shore, saved people from shark attacks and led drowning swimmers to safety. Though the river dolphin remains a poor cousin to its better known oceanic kin seen at Disney’s Sea World and other entertainment centre’s, it is an intriguing creature entering peoples consciousness  as one of the central characters in Amitav Ghosh’s award winning novel, “ The Hungry Tide”.

Life has come a full cycle- my children have well passed the stage when I had first seen the Xihu. They have not seen one. I need to hurry if they are to see them at all because today the river dolphin is on the verge of extinction. According to the 2008 census, just over 268 of them remain here in the Brahmaputra river system.

In nature, the dolphin does not have any enemy except human. Dolphins are mostly hunted for their blubber, used as bait for catfish. Across Assam, lore also has it that the oil from a dolphin is a miraculous cure for body aches and other illnesses. Their riverine habitat is severely threatened by dams, barrages, pollution and disturbed by thousands of noisy ferries. They are increasingly facing food scarcity as over-fishing by humans is harming their food chain. Accidental trapping in monofilament nets is proving catastrophic for their already dwindling numbers. Such human interventions have already made the Baiji, a variety of river dolphins of the Yangtze Kiang in China extinct.

Saving river dolphins is also important to human development and survival. As the top animal in the river food chain, they are an indicator of the rivers health. Their basic diet is fish and their presence in the river tells us that the water is not just clean but also able to sustain different species in the ecosystem.  Their decline signals danger to human communities that depend on the same freshwater resources.

The floodgates of my memory was flung open when in June 2008, I joined an organization which has been relentlessly working for the cause of the river dolphin case since the last couple of years. The Centre for North East Studies and Policy(C-NES) established in January 2000, works on areas relating to governance, participative planning, health, environment and rural livelihoods among others. The organization started a major initiative to strengthen and stabilize the dolphin population in the Brahmaputra in March 2006 by analyzing the threats to the mammals and reducing them, linked to eco-tourism and improved livelihoods.

The project has been working in six districts i.e Kamrup, Dhubri, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji and Darrang and has several achievements. Researchers at Patna Science College in Bihar worked with the C-NES group and found that the guts of a fish possess similar enough properties to dolphin oil and can also be used as bait. This has had an immediate impact on dolphin safety, reducing the threat from poachers who kill dolphin mainly because of its fat. This alternative bait is more effective, legal, generating more catch and hence more income. The entire Binn community of traditional fisherman using dolphin oil in Dhubri district has embraced conservation. The project has shown that hunters can turn protectors when an improved livelihood option and income generator is provided. Today some of these fisherman are travelling across Assam, popularizing the fish oil concept on their own, sharing their stories- bringing about livelihood and mindset changes-so critical for the dolphin’s survival.

Conservation efforts were further strengthened by the Assam Government designating the river dolphin as the State Aquatic Animal on June 5, 2008- the World Environment Day after sustained campaigns by C-NES and other like minded organizations.

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The organization has developed in partnership with local village groups and youth, two destinations at Guijan Ghat near Tinsukia and Kukurmara in Kamrup where tourists are offered an experience that combines river dolphin viewing with local cuisine, culture and hospitality. Kukurmara, 40 kms from Guwahati, is a small fisherman village of Kamrup district, situated on the banks of the Kulsi, a small tributary of the Brahmaputra. At present about 27 – 30 of these docile, adorable creatures are present in the Kulsi. The village is one of the largest producers of Eri yarn the “vegetarian” silk endemic to the north east region. Almost every home here has a loom where eri garments are woven, displayed and sold. The Merghar, a relic of the house of the mythological characters, Lakhindar and Beula is another attraction of Kukurmara. The near by ponds are pleasant to view.

So far 51 SHG’s ( Self Help Groups) have been formed by C-NES in this context in these districts engaged in activities such as dairy, poultry, duck raising, piggery, mushroom and pickle making.

The documentary “Children of the River”, the Xihus of Assam, produced by noted journalist, writer and policy analyst, Sanjoy Hazarika, also the Managing Trustee of C-NES, has been one of the major tools of the C-NES campaign. It was screened for the first time at the World Resource Institute, Washington DC, on September 2007, officially released in India at the India International Centre, New Delhi, and on December, 2007 in Assam. The film has also been screened in various schools in Assam for purposes of dissemination and public awareness, especially among school children. Much, if not all of conservation rests on awareness. For that alone it’s worth sharing their story.

There has also been a dramatic reflection of the success of the intervention. After years, dolphins have started appearing in large numbers near Dhubri, in Lower Assam, from July 2008 – a clear indication that they recognize that it is now safe for them to live closer to shores. The situation is nonetheless urgent. The Xihu and its habitat are declining at an accelerating rate.

Here is a moving real life experience – An environmentalist studying turtles off the coast of Orissa, on his way back from tagging turtles, came across two dolphins behaving oddly. Instead of swimming and somersaulting through the air as they are wont to, they seemed to be struggling as though trying to push something to the surface. He dived in and saw that they were trying to hold aloft a tiny dolphin calf. As he took the young calf in his arms, they floated by him silently much like concerned human parents might. Unfortunately there was nothing he could do because the calf was already dead. He swam back to the shore, tears mingling with the salty sea as the sound of their mournful whistle echoed in his ears.

This melancholy image frequently floats into my mind, when I think of these creatures so much like us and yet so different. I have been fortunate to witness and learn from them but wonder seeing their rapidly diminishing numbers, if my children can say they, too, saw aplenty on their journeys across the Brahmaputra.

Bhaswati K Goswami

Published in the Assam Tribune on  5.4.2009.          email-bhaswatigoswami@yahoo.co.in

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  • Photos from the field:

    Winners of all the competition along with Dr.Sanchita Boruah, Sanjoy Hazarika, Dr.P.C.Bhattacharjee & Dr.Chandan Mahanta.jpg From left: DPOs  Sonitpur and Tinsukia and new staff from different districts ( District Family Planning Counselors Jogananda Dutta for Dibrugarh,Ridip Bordoloi for Sonitpur and Ritiz Gogoi for Tinsukia) at  a discussion with Managing Trustee and senior staff in Dibrugarh office, Nov 2009 Laboratory Technician at work cnes_majuli_boat_clinic-12