There are very few things more enjoyable for a conservationist or a nature lover than to sit by a river, under the shade of a tree, watching Ganges River Dolphins play and hunt for fish in the river. These gentle and enigmatic aquatic mammals, once widely distributed in the freshwater rivers of Bangladesh, are highly intelligent, gregarious, living in groups, where mothers take care of their young, teach them to hunt and work together to find food.
Unfortunately, these incredibly intelligent and friendly animals are now listed as globally threatened by the IUCN Red List due to many anthropogenic threats, and their numbers are dwindling.
Across the world, there are five species of freshwater dolphins, and unfortunately, one species is already extinct while the rest are under extinction crisis. These are Ganges River Dolphin, Indus River Dolphin, Chinese River Dolphin or Baiji (already extinct), Irrawaddy Dolphin and Amazon River Dolphin. Two of the five species – the Ganges River Dolphins and the Irrawaddy Dolphins – are found in Bangladesh.
To raise awareness for the conservation of these iconic creatures of the rivers, the 24th of October has been designated as International Freshwater Dolphin Day. The day was declared at the "in East Kalimantan, Indonesia in October 2009, through the initiative of IUCN SSC Cetacean Group and WWF. Now the International Freshwater Dolphin Day is celebrated across the world.
Bangladesh Forest Department along with IUCN Bangladesh and UNDPofficially organized the first-ever International Freshwater Dolphin Day in 2018. Since then, the day has been celebrated every year in Bangladesh.
IUCN has supported the International Freshwater Dolphin Day celebration by organizing awareness-raising events, both in the cities and in the areas close to dolphin hotspots, the Forest Department, and its members. IUCN Bangladesh does so by promoting cultural linkages with conservation. For example, in recent awareness campaigns, IUCN, together with the Forest Department, UNDP, a group of esteemed artists of the country, worked with children to spark the imaginations of the masses through interactive arts, puppets, paintings and origami. This year, IUCN is celebrating the International Freshwater Dolphin Day with the Forest Department to engage policymakers and stakeholders, continue the forward momentum, and push for the declaration of the Ganges River Dolphin as the national aquatic animal of Bangladesh, which this iconic animal deserves to be.
The Government has taken many conservation initiatives. A total of nine dolphin sanctuaries have been declared to conserve the habitats for these unique mammals. The first three dolphin sanctuaries were declared inside the Eastern Sundarbans Reserve Forest in January 2012, where dolphin abundance is the highest. These sanctuaries are in Dhangmari, Chandpai and Dudhmukhi. After that, IUCN Bangladesh helped declare three more dolphin sanctuaries in Padma and Jamuna river systems, primarily for the Ganges River Dolphin, as the species is widely found in those rivers. Finally, in 2019, in collaboration with the Bangladesh Forest Department and UNDP, IUCN Bangladesh helped identify and declare three more dolphin sanctuaries inside Sundarbans, and its periphery, covering an area of 2,220 hectres. It brought the total area protected for the two dolphin species in Sundarbans to 3,227 hectres.
IUCN also supported the formation of community-based Dolphin Conservation Teams, which became an essential aspect in the dolphin conservation initiative. The Dolphin Conservation Team is comprised of people from the communities living close to the dolphin sanctuaries, who voluntarily contribute to the conservation, protection, rescue and release of entangled dolphins, raise awareness and assist in the overall conservation of the species. A total of seven Dolphin Conservation Teams were formed and trained, in 2018, under the supervision of the Forest Department, with ten members in each team. The teams are working with the Bangladesh Forest Department to ensure conservation and awareness-raising work is ongoing at the field level.
The threats to these species are multifaceted. However, 78% of all dolphin deaths are related to illegal fishing practices using banned fishing gear. Such practices lead to entanglement and the highest drowning of these animals. Other threats include pollution from upstream industrial development, obstructions in river flow due to sedimentation, human intervention like dams, and poison fishing. Climate change will only exacerbate the drivers and pressure unless we take drastic measures to save the habitats and the species.
These problems are complex and require a coordinated response from multiple agencies and citizens. But the International Freshwater Dolphin Day helps bring together the diverse stakeholders, from the community level to the policymakers and shines the spotlight on the pressing issues that we need to address. Meanwhile, IUCN will continue to conserve dolphins by working with all the stakeholders involved and supporting the Government in taking evidence-based management decisions for protecting the species and their habitats.