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Boats ply, dolphins die

Cuttack, Oct. 24: Tourists visiting the Chilika Lake may soon miss the sight of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that are in peril owing to the threat posed by unregulated operation of a large number of mechanised boats and ferries carrying tourists to the lake.

At least 10 dolphins are reportedly killed every year after being injured by the propeller blades of fishing boats.

Orissa is the natural habitat of the Irrawady dolphin (Orcealla brevirostris), which has a low breeding rate. With a gestation period of nine months, it produces only one offspring in three years, experts said.

There are only two places in the world where these dolphins can be found — one at the Songkhla Lake in Thailand and the other at Chilika. Only a few of them can be found in the Songkhla but the number is quite high in Chilika.

Promotion of eco-tourism in Chilika Lake had resulted in the rise of tourists over the past few years and Satpada had emerged as a major tourist destination with the dolphins as the major attraction.

State tourism minister Debi Prasad Mishra had recently assured to provide more and more fibre boats for the tourists.

The census conducted by the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) in 2006 had revealed presence of 123 dolphins inside the lake.

CDA sources said about 28 dolphins had died in the lake since 2004. While 17 dolphins were killed in 2004-05, the casualty figures were eight and three in 2005-06 and 2006-07, respectively.

Unofficial sources, on the other hand, put the number of deaths during the period at more than 50. Wildlife activists said the dolphin casualty occurs mostly between October and March when tourist inflow to the area is more.

Most of the fishermen of Satpada and Balugaon become tour operators during this period and take boatloads of tourists to the lake to show them the dolphins.

Nearly 600 boats take the tourists to the lake’s outer channel near Mahisa-Berhampura, Alupatna, Magarmukh and Rajhans in the southern sector where the dolphins are mostly sighted.

The ferries also take the tourists to Balugaon, Nalabana and Rambha areas where the dolphins had been sighted since the opening of the new mouth of the lake.

Most of these boats are fitted with “noisy and polluting engines” harmful for the dolphins.

“They are actually fishing boats, running on Lombardi engines, which, unlike the outboard motor engines, have six-feet propellers jutting out of the rear of the boats. These boats usually keep circling the animals till the tourists have got a nice view,” said B. Mohanty, secretary, Wildlife Society of Orissa.

“When 10 to 15 boats encircle the dolphins, the panic-stricken mammals try to swim away. But they collide with these boats, thereby getting injured by the propeller blades. They later succumb to the injuries,” Mohanty added.

WSO has over the past few years pressed for “sustainable and regulated tourism” in Chilika Lake to prevent the dolphins from becoming extinct.

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