The Ganges Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) is one of the critically endangered animals of Bangladesh and one of the red-listed mammals in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) record. It is one of the four freshwater dolphin species left in the world with no statistics of actual number of the remaining dolphins.
However, despite being critically endangered, Ganges Dolphins are being indiscriminately hunted and killed by fishermen in Rajshahi and surrounding areas along the river Padma/Ganges. It is really hard to imagine that those playful Dolphins or “Shusuh” once used to roam and somersault in the river Padma by hundreds in schools of 4 to 5 in a group just off the bank. Such eye-catching scenery is hardly ever seen nowadays in the Padma.
There are also very few books and journals and internet sites where one can find information on these animals. Loss of breeding grounds, construction of barrages over the river Ganges and drying up of the river at the downstream of Farakka, the number of Gangetic Dolphins have dwindled drastically. Nowadays, seldom, fishermen in the river Padma could net any Dolphin in their nets.
Recently, on December 31 in 2019, a huge Dolphin, weighing about 400 kgs, was caught by fishermen from Hurasagar river, a branch of the river Padma, at Bera upazila in Pabna. The fisherman sold the Dolphin at C&B market of Bera at Taka 6,000. Due to such unabated hunting and killing of the Dolphin, the remaining meagre number of Dolphin in the Padma is nearing extinction.
The Gangetic Dolphins have been a creature of amusement for the people living on the bank of river and the passengers traveling on boats and ships for thousands of years. The fishermen used to collect fat of the Dolphin to use those as medicine for rheumatism and many other diseases. The quacks and the ‘kabiraj’ used to purchase Dolphin oil or Shusuk oil from the fishermen against a handsome price.
The Gangetic Dolphins grow to a size of six feet with a long toothy snout and a rubber-like skin with a blowhole in the top of its head. These animals might use sound echo to travel and catch fish in the murky water of the Padma like its bottlenose cousin in the Amazon River. There are two species of freshwater Dolphins in Bangladesh, both are on the verge of extinction.
When asked, a few of the spectators and some local fishermen in Rajshahi informed, they used to watch some of the Dolphins in the Padma earlier but for about the last twenty years or so, they do not remember any sighting. The fishermen also informed that they used to catch those Dolphins for their medicinal properties. The oil derived from the fat of Dolphins is believed to cure back and leg pains and the skin of Dolphin is valued for curing epilepsy though no proof of the claim is found anywhere.
On the other hand, scientists believe the meats of most dolphins are hazardous for human consumption. This was first noticed in Japan where Dolphin meat was being sold as whale meat which reportedly caused fatal consequences and hospitalisations. Still, the meat of Dolphin was a delicacy for many of the aboriginal people in Bangladesh.
No step or what so ever was ever taken anywhere to save these animals as their main breeding ground, the Padma, dried up with all of the traces of the animals are gone. The warm water of the river Padma is ideal for breeding and raising young Susukhs and to find foods. The mighty cavernous river that once terrorised the people is no longer a river now. It is now dead with all its beautiful animals and fishes. It is hard to imagine, the Crocodile, Gharial, Susukh, all these big aquatic animals once roamed here.
“If we lose the fantastic Dolphins, our next generations will never know that there were once playful dolphins just off their homes,” said Shanil, 35, a resident of Dargapara areas of Rajshahi. He also said that a decade ago when he used to visit the T-dam of Padma river, he watched the roaming of playful Susuk close to him. But it is now impossible to find one here.
Sarker S. Islam, a journalist who won the Water Journalism Fellowship informed, the main reason for the disappearance of Dolphin is the loss of their habitat and indiscriminate hunting of those magnificent animals.
Dr Sarwar Jahan, a former professor of Department of Environmental Science of Rajshahi University, said that after the Farakka Dam was built, the Gangetic Dolphins began to vanish as the water flow through the river Padma discontinued and fell drastically. As a result, the Padma at the downstream which was once enriched with biodiversity, full of biological components and fertile water for thousands of species, is now a dried sand bed with a spec of flow even at the full monsoon.
Prof Jahan who once used to work intensively on the aquatic lives of the river Padma, had mentioned in an interview with a local journalist that once the turbulent Padma with its grayish mineral-rich water is now dried up to a desert-like riverbed with some water here and there that has now turned green. As a result of changing of quality of water of the river, it was hard for many aquatic lives to survive there.