Nature and biodiversity do not top the global agenda despite the peril they face, says an official from a conservation organization who warns that losses to the natural world pose a major threat to the global economy, as well as people's health.
"The loss of nature is increasing our vulnerability to disease outbreaks, undermining efforts to tackle the climate crisis, and threatening livelihoods," Gavin Edwards of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) told Anadolu Agency.
Speaking on the occasion of the International Day for Biological Diversity, observed annually on May 22 to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, Edwards pointed out the nature-based solution to the sustainability of a healthy planet.
"From nature-based solutions to climate, health issues, food and water security, and sustainable livelihoods, biodiversity is the foundation that sustains us all and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the safety net upon which we can build back better," said Edwards, who currently serves as the WWF's New Deal for Nature & People global coordinator.
This year's theme is "We're part of the solution," a slogan chosen to be a continuation of the momentum generated last year under the over-arching theme, "Our solutions are in nature," according to the UN.
Underlining that there is a strong link between nature loss and the risk of zoonotic diseases, which jump from animals to humans, Edwards said the novel coronavirus has shown that it was time for transformative action to preserve natural ecosystems and build nature-positive, carbon-neutral and sustainable societies.
Systematic change needed
"The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of zoonotic disease outbreaks -- land-use change, expansion and the intensification of agriculture and animal production, and the consumption of high-risk wildlife," said Edwards.
Touching on how COVID-19 affected wildlife and biodiversity conservation efforts, he said thousands of rural tourism-based jobs would be at risk if action is not taken.
"Conservancies use their nature-based tourism income to sustain their natural resource management activities as well as supplement members' livelihoods and wellbeing with direct payments, or support for food, schooling and more," he added.
Citing a last year's report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the potential of a nature-positive economy that could generate more than $10 trillion in annual business value, he said the green recovery would not only create more jobs and more economic opportunity, but also help the world avoid future pandemics.
In response to a question about possible steps on protecting biodiversity and nature, Edwards said the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity was scheduled to take place Oct. 11 - 24 and added that world leaders were scheduled to make critical decisions on the climate and environment.
"Countries are due to adopt a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework," he said, adding that the WWF was urging nations to secure a biodiversity agreement that tackles both direct and indirect drivers of nature loss.
Around 1 million species already face extinction, with many at risk of being wiped out within decades unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss, according to a report by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Signs of hope as population of endangered Indus River dolphin jumps in Pakistan Posted on 12 December 2017
WWF survey estimates 1816 dolphins increase of 50 per cent since 2001
Despite severe threats to Indus River dolphins throughout their remaining range, results from a comprehensive WWF survey released today show a dramatic increase in the population of the endangered species – thanks largely to successful, community-based conservation efforts.
Following the month-long survey, there are now estimated to be 1,816 Indus River dolphins in Pakistan – 50 per cent more than the 1,200 dolphins estimated after WWF’s first census in 2001, when the species appeared to be heading for extinction.
“Significantly increasing the number of Indus River dolphins over the past 15 years is a remarkable achievement considering the ever-increasing pressure on the river and the species, and shows that progress is possible when governments, conservationist and communities work together,” said Hammad Naqi Khan, Director General, WWF-Pakistan.
“While celebrating this national success, we must not forget that there are still less than 2,000 Indus River dolphins in the world and we need to redouble our efforts to tackle all the threats to their survival and ensure their numbers continue to rise,” added Khan.
Also known as the blind dolphin, the Indus River dolphin is listed as endangered in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species with all the remaining dolphins in Pakistan except for a tiny isolated population of around 30 in India’s Beas River.
Currently confined to just 20 per cent of their natural habitat range due to the construction of numerous dams and barrages along the Indus River, the dolphins are also threatened by worsening water pollution, stranding in irrigation canals and accidentally becoming caught in fishing nets.
Faced with all these threats, WWF has spearheaded an innovative and collaborative approach to save the species, integrating research, effective law enforcement, and, critically, community engagement. Since 1992, WWF-Pakistan and the Sindh Wildlife Department have led a dolphin rescue programme, which has successfully saved 131 dolphins from being stranded in irrigation canals and safely released them back into the river. A dolphin monitoring network in collaboration with local communities and a 24-hour phone helpline have also been established.
“Indus River dolphin numbers would still be decreasing if it were not for the active participation of communities along the river: they are our eyes and ears and have helped to brink these iconic animals back from the brink,” said Khan. “Our efforts to save the dolphin are also critical for these communities since the species is an indicator of the health of the river, upon which tens of millions of people depend.”
Led by WWF, the survey took place from 20 March to 13 April 2017 during low water season when the dolphins are most concentrated and easiest to count. A team of 20 scientists and researchers from WWF-Pakistan, Zoological Survey of Pakistan, and provincial wildlife departments travelled in four boats covering the Indus River dolphin range from the Chashma to Sukkur barrages. Data was recorded by four observers watching from viewing platforms on two boats that travelled downstream in tandem
SUKKUR: There is more to wildlife conservation than meets the eye. On the surface, much of it appears to the mass public as focused towards individual species on the brink of extinction, and for good reason. Using handful of ‘enigmatic species’ as they are called – your pandas and tigers and rhinoceroses, etc. – conservationists are able to canvas mass support for saving entire ecosystems and restoring a balance to nature. In some cases, in fact, saving one keystone species can cascade into a chain of natural events that work towards environmental betterment.
Pakistan has been blessed with its own enigmatic species, each more mysterious than the next. In the north we have the elusive snow leopard, rarely caught on film. The mighty Indus is home to another, even more puzzling creature – the blind Indus River Dolphin, known locally as Bhulan.
It’s distinct eyeless form, that appears in many ways contrary to popular conception of dolphins, is one overt reason for why it has captured the imagination, but so are the many myths that circulate around it in folklore. Its sister species in the Ganges is already considered an emblem of the namesake river goddess in Hindu mythology. But for us, perhaps the bigger question is how a dolphin came to call a river a home in the first place.
But mysteries aside, there has been in recent years a visibly upward trend in the rare dolphin’s population, according to the researchers dedicated to studying it.
There was once a time when the Indus River Dolphin was ubiquitous in not just the river it takes its name after but all connected waterways. Speaking on the matter, Indus Dolphin Conservation Centre (IDCC) Sukkur Incharge Mir Akhtar Talpur said the species started moving towards endangered status when the South Asian irrigation system was built by the British in the 18th century. “As the many dams and barrages were constructed to cater to the needs of the agriculture sector, this aquatic mammal’s natural range was disturbed and it was confined between one riverine structure and another,” he explained.
Talpur said the authorities started officially monitoring the numbers of the endangered dolphin with the establishment of the Sindh Wildlife Department in 1972. “The department started routine surveys and since then, we have know the exact numbers of the dolphin in Sindh.”
In 1972, when the first survey was carried out, there were just a paltry 132 dolphins in Sindh. “Even so, there has been a steady increase ever since,” Talpur shared. “A 1975 survey showed the numbers had grown to 182. When the last survey was conducted in 2019, we found there were 1,419 river dolphins between the Guddu and Kotri barrages.”
World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Project Manager for Sukkur Mohammad Imran Malik said that his organisation’s own independent surveys and rescue operations supported the steady rise in dolphin numbers. “Our results have consistently indicated an increase in this endangered species’ population. We know the numbers have been growing since 2001 and it is quite possible this trend began in the 1970s, when the hunting of this animal was banned,” he said.
Sharing the results of their latest survey, Malik said dolphin abundance was increasing between the Chashma and Taunsa barrages, a range where the species population was previously thought to be stable. “Direct counting results for the sub-population between Chashma and Taunsa barrages were 84, 82, 87 and 170 for the years 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2017 respectively,” he shared. “Between Taunsa and Guddu, similarly, direct counts have been steadily rising from 259 in 2001, to 465 in 2011 and 571 in 2017.”
“The last sub-population surveyed between Guddu and Sukkur barrages, which historically hosted the highest population of the Indus River dolphin also indicated a similar significant increase in population from 602 in 2001 to 1,075 in 2017,” Malik added.
Fruits of collective effort
According to Talpur, the fishing communities living along the banks of the Indus, particularly the Hindu Bagri community, used to hunt the dolphins back in the day to extract oil from its fat. “They used this oil to cook food, but an awareness campaign initiated by the Sindh Wildlife Department and WWF convinced them and other stakeholders to start taking care of the endangered species,” he said. “Because of this extensive work, members of the riverside communities immediately inform concerned officials if they sight a dead or stranded dolphin,” he added.
WWF’s Malik provided further detail on this participatory approach to wildlife conservation. “We integrate research and effective law enforcement with stakeholder and community engagement,” he said. “Our joint dolphin rescue programme with the Sindh Wildlife Department has been in place since 1992 and has been very effective in rescuing any stranded or trapped dolphins,” he added. Sharing rescue figures, Malik revealed that 131 out 147 stranded dolphins were saved and released back into the river between 1992 and 2017.
“Only one specimen could not survive the rescue operation, while 33 could not be rescued at all.”
WWF and the Sindh Wildlife Department have also established a dolphin-monitoring network in collaboration with relevant stakeholders and local communities to monitor the Indus River and adjacent canals and tributaries to save dolphins from other hazards.
“The monitoring teams of this network have conducted over 100 monitoring surveys since 2015 to stop illegal fishing and to rescue stranded dolphins with 12 successful rescues during 2016.”
Talking about the steps taken to protect the endangered species, Malik said that a 24-hour phone helpline has been set up to report any stranded dolphins. “The observed increase in the population may be an outcome of all these concrete and continuous efforts,” he said.
According to WWF researchers, habitat fragmentation and degradation due to extraction of water in the dry season and pollution are amongst the prime threats faced by the Indus River Dolphin. Since the 1870s the range of the Indus River dolphin has been reduced to one-fifth of its historical range, primarily due to shortage of water caused by agricultural demands and removal of water from the river to supply the extensive irrigation system in Pakistan.
“Barrages across the Indus River hold running water and divert it into an extensive network of irrigation canals emerging from each barrage to fulfill the need of water for agriculture,” shared Malik. “Indus dolphins tend to move to irrigation canals through flow regulator gates, adjacent to barrages throughout the year and when the canals are closed for maintenance, dolphins are stuck in the canals due to sudden water shortage.”
The WWF official said intensive fishing in the core habitat of the Indus dolphin is also one of the key threats to its population with high probability of dolphin mortality from entanglement in fishing nets, especially when they move into easily accessible and heavily fished irrigation canals. “Habitat fragmentation and degradation due to extraction of water in the dry season and pollution are amongst the prime threats faced by the Indus River dolphin,” he added.
“The construction of numerous dams and barrages across the Indus River has led to the fragmentation of the Indus River dolphin population into isolated sub-populations, many of which have been extirpated especially from the upstream reaches of the river,” he concluded.
Talking about the low number of dolphins in Punjab, Talpur claimed that most of the big cities of Punjab are situated at the bank of rivers and all the drainage waste is mercilessly released in the river. “Not only this but industrial waste, especially poisonous waste from tanneries, is extremely hazardous for the fragile mammal,” he said. According to him, in Sindh from Guddu barrage to Sukkur barrage, no big cities exist at the bank of Indus, except for Sukkur.
“Yet another reason is scarcity of water in the upstream and downstream from Guddu to Sukkur barrages,” he added. “Ample water is available throughout the year, which is why majority of the blind Indus dolphins are found between the two barrages. The only time of the year when the dolphins face difficulties in surviving is in January during the closure of barrages for annual repairs and maintenance in January.” During those days, cases of dolphins slipping in the canal in search of food are frequent. Upon reports of trapped dolphins, they are rescued and released in the safety of the river.
Talking about the fragility of the dolphins Malik said, “They suffer heart attacks as soon as they are entangled in the fishing nets. Therefore, the fishermen are educated to immediately make efforts to rescue the mammal to save its life.”
Mehram Ali Mirani, an elderly fisherman, strongly condemned the use of poisonous chemicals by some in his trade. “This practice must be stopped because on the one hand it proves hazardous for the marine life and on the other human beings also fall prey to various diseases after eating those poisonous fish,” he said. “We are born fishermen and our survival is linked to the clean and healthy river. Therefore, I request the fishermen community, not to use chemicals to catch fish,” he said.