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Bangladesh’s Climate Change Victims Safeguard the Sundarbans’ Endangered Dolphins

October 24 is International Freshwater Dolphin Day. Last year Bangladesh celebrated the international day for the first time, but the country has been instituting policies and programmes for years to protect the Sundarbans — home of Asia’s last two remaining freshwater dolphin species. IPS Correspondent Rafiqul Islam travelled to Khulna to file this report.

Forest officials patrolling a dolphin sanctuary in Sundarbans, Bangladesh. Credit: Rezaul Karim Chowdhury/IPS

KHULNA, Bangladesh, Oct 23 2019 (IPS) - Israfil Boyati lives along the shoreline of the Bay of Bengal. In the past he used to catch fish in the canals and rivers of Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangrove forest — one of the world’s largest and habitat to many endangered species, including the Bengal tigers and freshwater dolphins.

But Boyati has been affected hugely by climate change. He lives in the Dhangmari area in the Dakope sub-district in Khulna — the third-largest city in Bangladesh. Khulna is one of the country’s two most-vulnerable ares when it comes to climate change, having been hit by increasing number of cyclones over the years. According to a study, when Cyclone Aila hit the area in 2009, “Khulna District was worst damaged by cyclone Aila”, with more than a half a million people affected.

“We have been living in the one of most disaster-prone regions as cyclones and storm surges hit us every year. But, in the past, we had caught fish in the rivers and canals of Sundarbans putting our life and aquatic animals like dolphin at risk,” Boyati, who is now chief of Dhangmari Dolphin Conservation Team, tells IPS.

Home to rare species of dolphins that don’t live together anywhere else in the world

The Sundarbans is a home to the Asia’s last two remaining freshwater dolphin species – the endangered Ganges River Dolphin and Irrawaddy Dolphin. It’s also the only place in the world where the two dolphins share the same habitat.

  • According to a 2009 estimate of the United States-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), there were 225 Ganges dolphins and 451 Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Bangladesh portion of the Sundarbans. But these are now endangered mammals due to both natural and manmade causes.
  • The Daily Star reported that a 2010 joint survey by WCS and Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project (BCDP) found some “225 Gangetic river dolphins, 6,000 Irrawady dolphins, over 1,000 Bottlenose dolphins and a significant number of Indo-Pacific hump-backed dolphins, pan-tropical spotted dolphins and spinner dolphins in the rivers and canals of the Sundarbans”.
  • In 2012, the Bangladesh government declared the Dhangmari, Chandpai and Dudhmukhi areas of Pasur and Andharmanik rivers as dolphin sanctuaries covering 32 linear kilometres, aiming to protect the aquatic mammal from extinction.

Local fishers are not allowed to fish in the Sundarbans, as it causes harm to the rare freshwater dolphins found there. Credit: Rezaul Karim Chowdhury/IPS

Fisher communities educate others about harms of fishing in protected areas

Fisherfolk like Boyati have never intentionally harmed dolphins here. But as happens across the world, here too dolphins get tangled in fishing gear and nets.

To conserve the diversity of aquatic animals in the Sundarbans, the Bangladesh Forest Department has formed six dolphin conservation teams involving the community people, who are the most vulnerable to climate change as many are struggling with their livelihoods against the rising sea.

Now a 12-member conservation team is educating local fishermen not to catch fish in the dolphin hotspot areas and sanctuaries identified by Bangladesh Forest Department, Boyati explains.

“We are not only mobilising the community people, but also help the forest officials identify the problems they have been facing in dolphin conservation,” he says.

Modinul Ahsan, Divisional Forest Officer and National Project Director, tells IPS there are currently 6 dolphin conservation teams that are operational “in the Sundarbans
and the teams are working voluntarily to create awareness among the communities so that they come forward to protect the freshwater dolphins”.

He explains that when dolphins are caught in the nets of fishermen in the Sundarbans’ rivers, the conservation teams immediately inform forest officials, who then rescue and release the dolphins.

The conservation teams were formed under the Expanding the Protected Area System to Incorporate Aquatic Systems Project with financial support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The Forest Department in collaboration with International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN Bangladesh is implementing the project, which is expected to be completed at the end of this year, Ahsan explains.

The Forest Department has also identified several dolphin hotspots in Sela-Supati rivers, Sibsa River, the estuarine area around Putney Island, Pasur River, Baleshawr Estuary, and the Pankhali confluence, covering 571 square kilometres.

“After introduction of the conservation teams, fishing declined by 70 percent in the dolphin sanctuaries and that is why the status of dolphin is good there,” IUCN Programme Coordinator ABM Sarwar Alam tells IPS. Since the implementation of the project the number of freshwater dolphins in the areas have increased.

“Dolphin conservation means fisheries conservation…the presence of dolphins in any river indicates that its ecosystem is good,” project manager Rezaul Karim Chowdhury tells IPS.

However, risks remain.

A dolphin spotted in the Sundarbans river, very near to the Gashiakhali Channel through which cargos ships sail. Credit: Rezaul Karim Chowdhury/IPS


Cargo ships and nets still kill

A large number of cargo ships travel through the Goshiakhali channel near Dhanmari sanctuary every day, posing a threat to the endangered dolphins that exist there.

Around 130 dolphins were killed in the riverine, coastal and marine waters of Bangladesh from January 2007 to April 2016 either from being trapped in fishing nets or through injury from ship propellers, unofficial data reveal.

An official survey shows that 70 percent of dolphin deaths can be attributed to incidental killing by fishing nets, while 8 percent is attribute to poison fishing, 6 percent to the decline of fish and crustaceans, 6 percent to the decrease of freshwater flow and 5 percent to siltation —  an increased concentration of sediments in the water.

Chowdhury adds that a rapid decline in thae flow of Sundarbans rivers and indiscriminate industrialisation near the mangrove forest are also posing threat to the aquatic animals.

“Dolphins could be protected by controlling vessel movement in the Sundarbans and checking fishing nets there,” Alam says.

Until then Boyati and his team are working with other fisherfolk to educate them about the dangers of fishing in the protected areas.

Mrinal Mondal, another dolphin conservation team member, says if any fisher person is catch fish in the dolphin sanctuary or hotspot areas, the team members ask them to relocate, explaining how numerous dolphins die when trapped in fishing nets.

“Apart from conservation of aquatic animals, when any wildlife comes to their locality from the Sundarbans, they rescue it and release the animal to the forest,” Mondal tells IPS.

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