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The Endangered Indus River Dolphin

| Maia Danks
Topics: Cetacean Habitat, Dolphins, SeaWorld

Maia Danks is an intern working with the International Marine Mammal Project.  She is graduating this year from Berkeley High School and is an accomplished scuba diver.


The Indus River dolphin is large, reaching up to 200 pounds and 8.5 feet long.  This freshwater dolphin lives in the Indus River in Pakistan and India. Their eyes are small and weak as they rely nearly entirely on their echolocation in the shallow muddy water of the rivers. The Indus River dolphins were the first species of dolphin to be found to swim on their sides, allowing them to swim in extremely shallow water.

This unique animal is now being threatened with extinction, with less than 1,000 dolphins left. Their only home is shrinking rapidly as human-made irrigation systems are created from the river; the Indus River dolphin’s habitat is now only 1,200 km long. Farmers in the area use the water for their crops, but it has caused fragmentation that has closed off the dolphin’s habitat. Water pollution, poaching, and fishing in the river have also been a part of the reason for the population decline. Muhammad Imran Malik, from the dolphin protection project of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), states that “Narrow fishing nets trap the dolphin under the water and [the dolphins] need to come out to breathe after every one to two minutes.” This has been a common dilemma for dolphins all over the world -- fishermen inadvertently trap dolphins in a net underwater, but when they are held under the water for too long they suffocate and die. But the nets used in the Indus River are deliberately set to stop the dolphins from competing with the fishermen for fish.

The fisherman that directly kill the Indus dolphins have been a target by conservationists. An awareness and training program run by NGO Sustainable Tourism Foundation Pakistan (STFP) in 2015 allowed for further understanding of the intelligent animals, and has also increased incomes for the fishermen in the area through ecotourism. The dolphins have attracted people from all over the world, where the tourists go in boat rides to try to catch a glimpse of them. A local fisherman told that “My monthly income has jumped from Rs.3,000 (approximately $30) to Rs.5,000 ($50) in just a few months due to the boat safaris. Tourists love to see and touch the dolphin.” When the local people in the area care about what happens to the dolphins, they can make all of the difference.

WWF Pakistan has been leading the way for Indus River dolphin conservation. Members of the organization are on call to save stranded dolphins and release them back into the river, introduce sustainable fishing methods, help to minimize water pollution from agricultural runoff, conduct research on the dolphins, and create awareness of the importance of the dolphins. Their work has helped to slow the decline of the Indus River dolphin population, and are even beginning to help the numbers increase.

Freshwater river dolphins are among the most endangered dolphin species on Earth. The baiji, the Chinese river dolphin, is considered extinct, having been a victim of dams and pollution in China’s Yangtze River. The Ganges River of India is inhabited by a subspecies related to the Indus river dolphin. Latin America also has several species of river dolphins.

As time goes on, it’s important to continue to grow awareness for these incredible animals, and to help in any way possible to save the Indus River dolphins.


Photo credit WWF-Pakistan.