Calcutta, Feb. 16: Chhaya and Bholanath, two motorised boats, will drop anchor on the Matla river in the Sunderbans by the end of this month. A study team will take up position on either side of the upper and lower deck, high-power glasses glued to their eyes, scanning the waters for that special sprout of spray.
“This will be a common sight in the Sunderbans over three weeks, beginning February 27, as a team of scientists, researchers and experts travels to survey the status of the dolphin in the brackish waters,” says Farida Tampal, senior project officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Calcutta, who will accompany the special squad coming down from the US and UK.
The Sunderbans, described as the world’s largest mangrove forest, is home to four species of dolphins and porpoises — the Ganges River dolphin or Susu, Irrawaddy dolphin, Finless Porpoise and Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin. All of them are “endangered” under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
“The Sunderbans, perhaps, is the last refuge for the dolphins, enmeshed in the ongoing environmental cataclysm of deforestation and development,” said Smaran Ghosh of Pugmarks, a city-based conservation society that is co-ordinating the first such Sunderbans sojourn. “With time running out for the mammals, scientists have moved swiftly to know more about the habits, population and threats facing them and to work out effective strategies to protect the population at risk.”
Leading the team of scientists, researchers and experts of the forest department and department of central marine fisheries will be Brian D. Smith of the US-based World Conservation Society (WCS) and Gill Braulik of the ‘species survival Cetacean specialist group’ (covering whales and dolphins) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The scope of the survey covers “technical specifications” like the exact species and distinguishing marks and “environmental parameters” like water temperature and food-fish species available in the area.
The immediate concern to protect the Flippers of the Sunderbans was sparked by a similar survey by the WCS, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, UK, and the WWF, US, in collaboration with the Bangladesh ministry of environment and forests last year. After a month-long, 1,500-km search by Smith and Braulik, the duo tracked around 199 Susu, 412 Irrawaddy dolphins and four Indo-Pacific Humpbacks. No Finless Porpoise was sighted.
“We are yet to fully gauge the impact on dolphins of insidious dangers like pollution, sedimentation and over-fishing of shrimp. The results thrown-up by the survey will help us gain a better understanding of the species and chalk out strategies to protect them and the ecology of the mangrove forests as a whole,” said Shakti Ranjan Banerjee, state director of the WWF and a member of the wildlife advisory board.
The researchers, however, have bigger plans. Besides implementing a “common trans-boundary conservation programme”, they plan to train volunteers and forest department employees on February 24 and 25 to ensure that the “ever-smiling mammals” of the sea continue to thrill.