Author: Arati Kumar- Rao
In a village by the Ganga lived two young girls who were firm friends. One tended gardens – she was a maali. The other was an oil seller, a teli. One morning, they set out to the river to bathe and fetch water. They began to argue about some little thing but, as arguments often do, this one too soon got out of hand. In their anger, they cursed each other, and no sooner had the words left their lips than each was transformed. The gardener became a gharial and swam away. The oil seller became a bhulan and dived deep into the river. Legend has it that this is how two of the most iconic denizens of the Ganga river system were born – the fish-eating crocodilian with a bulge at the end of its snout and the long-lipped Gangetic river dolphin, the apex predator of the river.
In 2013, Paul Salopek set out on a 24,000-mile experiment in slow journalism. His mission: to walk in the footsteps of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age, a journey that began in Ethiopia and will end, in due course, at Tierra del Feugo at the extreme tip of Latin America. In February 2018, Paul crossed over from Pakistan into India at the Wagah border, and I joined him as his walking partner through Punjab and Rajasthan. The walk is intense, and physically demanding – roughly thirty-five kilometres in the heat of an Indian summer, every single day. A hundred kilometres into India, at the Harike wetlands bordering the Tarn Taran Sahib district of Punjab, he catches a nasty bug. We decide to park for a few days. The break comes as a relief, and offers me a chance to catch up on my research on the region.
Harike falls under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, established under the Ramsar Treaty of 1971 for the conservation and protection of wetlands. Wetlands are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the world, and excellent carbon sinks. This treaty defines wetlands to include lakes, rivers, marshes, bogs, peatlands, wet grasslands, underground aquifers, coral reefs as well as human-made sites like paddy fields and reservoirs. As I read up about the largest wetland in northern India, a line catches my eye: Indus river dolphins, that had ‘gone extinct in India in the 1930s’, had been ‘discovered’ again in the Beas river in 2007.
That there are Indus dolphins in India is news to me. They are an endangered species, the once-teeming population now fragmented in short stretches of the main stem of the Indus river in Pakistan. The prospect of a sighting is tantalizing. I leave Paul to his rest and drive to the banks of the Beas and into the conservation area.
A low-slung boat slices across the river. A turbaned boatman stands tall at the prow; two farmers crouch between huge stacks of sarkanda, one of a few types of grass that cover the islands in the river. The water is dotted with sandbars, flanked on one bank by strands of high grass of the saccharum species and, on the other, by verdant fields of wheat. A man, ears plugged with loud thumping music and thus deaf to the world outside, waits at the edge of the river by the wheat fields, backpacking a translucent canister filled with a tangerine-coloured liquid. The lettering on it reads: ‘WARNING: Don’t spray at people and animals’.
I watch as he walks into the field that runs right up to the jagged line of the riverbank, and promptly starts the motor with a deafening put-put-put. He zigs and zags through the wheat field, painting the stalks, and occasionally the river, with the chemical.
‘Have you seen the bhulan here?’ I call out over the din, as the boat nears the bank. Bhulan, meaning ‘long-lipped’, is the local name for the snouted freshwater dolphin. Amarjeet Singh, the turbaned boatman, is an ex-army man who now plies a boat between the two banks. He points upstream. ‘I saw two swim that way in the morning.’
I ask if we can go look for them. He gives me a quizzical stare. Visitors are rare in this region. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘if you don’t mind me ferrying people across while we do that.’ I clamber onto the boat, and Amardeep swings it out in a wide arc around a reed island, pointing the prow at a smooth swathe of deep river.
The Indus dolphin is one of two subspecies of freshwater dolphins found in the Indian subcontinent. The other, the Gangetic dolphin, is native to the Ganga–Brahmaputra–Meghna river basin further east. Both varieties are blind. Thanks to millions of years spent in silty Himalayan meltwaters, the lens of the dolphin’s eye has lost the ability to see, and it is able only to discern the direction of light. It navigates, finds food and identifies mates by echolocation. Both varieties swim on their side, hunt fish and live in human-dominated river systems. They are the top predators in a river, and highly endangered.
Colonial records suggest that the Beas river teemed with life in the nineteenth century. ‘The Beas abounds with cyprinus roe, a species of carp, good for eating; also with a species of silurus about the size of a large trout, but very ugly, like a tadpole, and eaten by the natives only; also with tortoises and porpoises and alligators. Some officers the other day went out fishing and are said to have caught more than 1,900 fish,’ mentioned James Coley in his Journal of the Sutlej Campaign Of 1845–6. Coley’s ‘alligators’ were likely gharials, and the ‘porpoises’ Indus dolphins.
In 1878, the Scottish zoologist John Anderson, the first to describe the Indus dolphin, noted that river dolphins swam the length of the Indus basin from the delta to the foothills of the Himalaya, across what is now India and Pakistan. He also put down the Gangetic dolphin’s range as the entirety of the Ganga–Brahmaputra basin.
In the second half of the twentieth century came the barrages and the dams, as the newly independent nation pushed forth its development mission. By 1971, twenty dams and barrages punctuated the Indus and its main tributaries, chopping up the dolphin’s range into seventeen sections. By the 1990s, this fragmentation had slashed the dolphin’s range by 80 per cent.
Today the Indus dolphin is found in only five of sixteen sections of the Indus in Pakistan. In India, it is found only in this one section of the Beas, a stretch bookended by the Pong dam in Himachal Pradesh and the Harike barrage at the confluence of the Beas and the Sutlej.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Marginlands: Indian Landscapes on the Brink’ by Arati Kumar-Rao and published by PanMacmillan India. Arati Kumar-Rao is a National Geographic Explorer, an independent environmental photographer, writer, and artist documenting the slow violence of ecological degradation.