© Nyal Moeenuddin, WWF-Pakistan

Saving the Indus River Dolphins

The Indus River dolphin is the second most endangered freshwater dolphin in the world. In 2001, WWF-Pakistan conducted the first Indus River dolphin survey where only 1,200 individuals were counted. What followed were concerted efforts by WWF-Pakistan, provincial wildlife departments, and communities to protect the dolphins. Almost fifteen years later, the latest population survey shows that these conservation efforts were successful, and close to 2,000 dolphins were counted, showing a population increase for the first time.

This survey is a sign of hope and a reminder to continue our efforts to protect the dolphin and explore innovative solutions for its conservation. According to Mirani, rescuing dolphins can be a tricky job, evident from the numerous dolphin bites on his hands from rescue operations, but he cannot imagine a life without this mammal and the Indus River.

An excellent swimmer, Mirani is part of a team that locates trapped dolphins in shallow water bodies. After a dolphin is spotted, he ensures its safe translocation to the main river channel in a soundproof ambulance. More than a hundred dolphins have been rescued in the past few years. Stranding of dolphins in canals is amongst the key threats this mammal faces. When the canal gates are closed, the water level drops, and these canals turn into small ponds.

Dolphins become trapped, unable to swim back, left with only a limited food supply. A 24-hour rescue hotline allows communities to report strandings of dolphins to WWF and the Sindh Wildlife Department. The rescue team then arrives in a dolphin ambulance. WWF, along with local communities and the Sindh Wildlife Department, has been involved in the safe rescue and release of dolphins for over three decades.

Additionally, other community watchers work with the Wildlife Department in monitoring the dolphins but rangers work with limited resources. Their jobs involve patrolling the Indus River to look for illegal fishing activities, which can cause dolphin entanglement in nets and lead to mortality. Once the team arrives and has assessed the situation, it manually lifts the stranded dolphin out of the canal, places it on a stretcher, and takes it to the ambulance.

The Indus Dolphin is a sensitive mammal, which relies on its highly developed sonar and hearing to navigate. It can experience stress during the rescue and translocation process due to the sound and movement of the vehicle. Therefore, a specialized soundproof ambulance is equipped with a shower and water tank to keep the dolphin’s skin moist to ensure its well-being and safety. The dolphin rescue network includes the Sindh Wildlife Department, Sindh Irrigation Department, Sindh Forest Department, Sindh Fisheries Department, Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, and local community activists, which monitor the Indus River as well as its adjacent canals and tributaries to rescue any stranded dolphins.