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Conservation of Kulsi: a race for survival between species

Text by Sunny Deori

Photos by Udayan Borthakur

River Kulsi, a tributary to the Brahmaputra

The existence of the word ‘Conservation’ of any species on this planet is true until they survive. Moreover, the survival of the species on the other hand, is dependent on the health of its environment. This environment, in today’s world scenario, where the demarcation between the wild and human civilization is fading away so rapidly, will be more appropriate when we combine all the biotic and abiotic factors along with the anthropo factor.

To generate a more realistic picture let me introduce you to a small tributary of Brahmaputra, the Kulsi River. Kulsi, which is famous for the charismatic species of Ganges dolphins, is one of the smallest tributaries of Brahmaputra originating from a trident of three rivers at Umkiam of Meghalaya. It enters Assam at Kulsi village and confluences with Brahmaputra at Nagarbera after traversing for about 72km.

A Ganges dolphin

Kulsi River is home to a small population of Ganges dolphins along with more than 200 species of fish, which includes many endemic and ornamental fish and several species of turtles and water birds. Recent surveys (2011- 2014) reveals a population estimation of about 25- 35 dolphins in Kulsi river. It was observed that this species shows special preferences for rivers with meanders, confluences and deeper pools. As, these kinds of habitats attracts the fish-pools which is the only food of Ganges dolphins. They are the greatest known evolved cetaceans of the third world who have moved from the sea towards the freshwater rivers during three significant marine transgressive- regressive cycles during middle Miocene period. It has evolved with finest sonar mechanism to echolocate as it loses its eyesight due to its new murkey freshwater habitat. It has also developed some unique features such as side swimming behavior, which is a useful tool to propagate in shallow waters.

Although, after a drastic decline in its population worldwide due to various factors and most importantly anthropogenic pressures, it has been declared as Endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Scheduled 1 species under Wildlife Protection Act (1972). Thus it has been ordained with the highest level of protection at present. Apart from this it has also been recognized as the State Aquatic Animal of Assam in 2008 and National Aquatic animal of our country in 2009. Dolphins are aquatic mammals and a top level predator in the freshwater ecosystem whose presence in any freshwater river system is a sign of good health for the entire ecosystem. Unfortunately, people have been posing serious threats to the animal, either directly or indirectly.

Water pollution caused by industrial waste discharge or household garbage; constructions of dams and barrages; transportations through ferries and motor boats etc. have led to extreme habitat destruction of dolphins. On the other hand, fishermen communities impose prey- predator competition by introducing harmful fishing gear like mosquito and monofilament gill nets. Even intentional killing for oil extraction from dolphin’s blabber for fishing practices or remedies for rheumatic disease as superstitious believes or for meat etc. are aiding in direct shrinkage of the population.

Unlike most of the endangered terrestrial mammals which are protected under demarcated boundaries of sanctuaries, parks and reserves, this particular species habitat is the most difficult one to safeguard. As the river flows towards it confluences with another bigger water source, it covers various mosaics of landscapes and people residing along its bank. Hence, it is more vulnerable to human generated threats. For instance, Kulsi River traverses through an altitudinal range of more than 4000 ft in Meghalaya to about 1800 ft in rural Kamrup district of Assam with river banks ranging from riparian types to matured forest to shrub lands and cultivated lands. It is also populated with various communities of people along its bank, for most of whom the river is their lifeline. The river serves as source of water for irrigation, transportation, fish and minerals in the form of sand to the people residing the banks of Kulsi River. The fishermen communities of Kulsi have been present there since time immemorial and the sand miners for more than past fifty years.

Fishing activity on river Kulsi

Since then the population in villages have bloomed and consequently the pressure on the Kulsi River has also multiplied. To list few of the added pressures on the Kulsi ecosystem are, lift irrigation using motor pumps during dry season (Irri) cultivation; number of motor boats for transportation have increased; fishermen have scaled up their fishing gears to finer mesh sizes to improve their catch quality as well as quantity; hand extraction is gradually converting to pump extraction of sand from river bed etc. All these anthropogenic activities are livelihood of people for their survival. In this competition for survival, we as conservationists are working towards the conservation of the river along with the species like Ganges dolphins within our limited capacities.

Sand mining activity on river Kulsi

Why conservation of this particular species? Ganges dolphin is considered as an “Umbrella species” whose conservation can be a holistic approach towards the preservation of the entire trophic levels in the food chain along with the river system. And of course a healthy river system will be a boon for entire human communities.

Among communities dependent on the Kulsi River, the cultivators’ population is the highest followed by the fishermen communities. The livelihood of the fishermen of Kulsi is totally dependent on the amount of catch they get. As the competition for resource extraction is increasing, fish population is decreasing. Hence, fishermen are improvising their fishing gears from traditional methods towards monofilament gillnets, hook lines, etc. Apart from this the fishing communities are also involved in illegal activities such as fishing in ‘fish ban’ seasons and using mosquito nets for fishing. Such activities are further deteriorating the dolphin habitat. Also the younger generations of these communities are diverting themselves towards sand mining which earn them a better profit in comparison to fishing. The newly adopted method of sand mining with fuel or electric pumps is disturbing the river bed stratum which serves as spawning grounds for the plankton community, which is the primary trophic levels of the river system.

However, when we consider the socio-economic status of these people, they can be considered in below poverty line category described by the government of India. The education qualifications of these people are also a reflection of their economic status. The younger generations are either following their elder generations’ occupation or moving towards other options such as sand mining or working as labour in cultivated land. They are deprived of basic needs such as proper health and education facilities, communications, etc. The neo liberal economic policies accepted by our government are not actually helping them to lift their living standards. Absence of alternative livelihood source of income among the fishing communities and the sand miners have left them with no options other than to exploit the natural resources even more. Unemployment among the youths of the villages is getting worse. To worsen the situation even more, the villages of the downstream part of Kulsi River are affected by annual floods for almost for 6 months during a year.

When we have been putting humongous pressure on the River, we are now added with another bigger problem of establishment of ITC company on one of the major hot-spot of Ganges dolphin in Kulsi river, i.e. the Kulsi- Batha confluence. The company build their boundary wall over the confluence area by pushing it further into a thin channel. This engulfed the major habitat of dolphin population of the river. A drastic change in the population distribution of the Ganges dolphin have been observed in the very recent surveys (2016-19) conducted by Wildlife institute of India. The population was seemed to avoid the hotspot and moved towards downstream. The administration should be more sensible in dealing with fragile habitat like Kulsi. From dolphin’s point of view, confluences are their prior habitat and we need to protect it. Industrial development is undeniable, but while executing on ground we need to ensure that such prime habitat with dolphin movement need to keep undisturbed. The administration and the community should have to keep close monitoring on the waste management of these industries so that the river does not pollute.

Now, coming to the question towards the Conservation ‘of what?’. On one hand we have the charismatic species of Gangetic Dolphins and on the other entire human communities along with their age old cultures associated with the river. This situation reflects the universal scenario as well when we consider the global distribution of Ganges dolphins in the Brahmaputra- Barak- Ganges in India, Meghna in Bangladesh and Karnaphuli in Nepal and the people residing in these valleys. Prior to conservation of the species, conservation of the people dependent on the river should be one of the major steps. Providing them with alternative livelihood sources is the need of the hour. The second step will be to provide them ownership by including them as stakeholders in conservation of the ecosystem strategies. And to achieve these, we as conservationist will require a strong shield of authentic scientific findings ready in hand to prove ourselves that conservation of the species and the people will help bring balance in the ecosystem. Failing to do this would bring us a tragic end of the great diversity of dynamic Brahmaputra valley.

About the Author:

Sunny Deori is currently associated with the Wild life Institute of India as a Project Fellow. She is also pursuing her PhD from Forest Research Institute University in Ganges Dolphin ecology and threats. Her interest of work is Landscape ecology.

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