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Motive brake on dolphin study

Calcutta, May 19: An expedition into the Sunderbans to study the lives of the secretive dolphins and porpoises has been blocked on suspicion about the team’s motive.

Wildlife officials here say the cancellation followed directives from the Union ministries of external affairs and environment and forests. But those associated with the never-before expedition into the bedroom of Sunderbans’ dolphins say they were actually victims of a conspiracy by a “rival organisation to stymie” their research.

The team, admittedly, had impressive credentials and was coming to the Indian part of the Sunderbans after a similar study in the Bangladeshi side of the mangrove forests.

Comprising “volunteers and scientists” from the World Wildlife Fund-India, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the state forest department and several other city-based non-government organisations, the team had representatives from the US and Bangladesh.

But, as it ultimately turned out, the team was not destined to sail out from the shores. “Everything was in place and even the food and beverages had been stacked aboard the vessels that were supposed to take the dolphin-study team out to the seas,” state director of WWF-India Col Shaktiranjan Banerjee said. “But the expedition had to be called off as it transpired that the documents necessary were not in place,” he added.

Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve director and conservator of forests Atanu Raha confirmed that the clearances necessary for a tour involving foreigners were not there. “A never-before survey on dolphins is fine but nothing can be done at the cost of the country’s security,” he told The Telegraph. “The team did not have the clearance from the Union ministry of environment and forests and, more important, the foreign ministry.”

Officials disclosed the equipment the team was carrying “raised suspicions” that its brief included trying to gauge the availability of petroleum reserves under the river and seabed. One of the equipment — used in the global positioning system (GPS) — could not be allowed “at any cost without prior permission”, they said. The GPS is a satellite navigation system funded and controlled by the US department of defence. Four GPS signals are used to compute exact locations.

Officials admitted that a Central directive arrived before the team was to leave and the expedition was called off. A year ago, a foreign television channel got permission to do a film on marine life but returned after shooting captive creatures, officials said while explaining the “tough stance”.

Those connected with the survey, however, think differently. “The credentials of the members were impressive and it was unfortunate that questions were raised on their integrity,” a WWF spokesperson said.

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