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An endangered river dolphin finds an unlikely savior: fisherfolk

A dolphin swims along the Indus river in the southern Pakistani city of Sukkur. Local legend has it that Pakistan's Indus River dolphin was once a woman, transformed by a curse from a holy man angry that she forgot to feed him one day. This endangered species is seeing numbers revive, with fisherfolk playing a role as citizen-scientists.
Rizwan Tabassum AFP via Getty Images
A dolphin swims along the Indus river in the southern Pakistani city of Sukkur. Local legend has it that Pakistan's Indus River dolphin was once a woman, transformed by a curse from a holy man angry that she forgot to feed him one day. This endangered species is seeing numbers revive, with fisherfolk playing a role as citizen-scientists.

MOHAMMAD ALAM MIRANI VILLAGE, Pakistan – An unlikely citizen scientist is helping to save an endangered dolphin that lives in Pakistan's Indus River. He's a fisherman who cannot read or write.

Using his battered mobile, Sikander Ali calls a Pakistan representative of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature whenever he sees a river dolphin, which he says is happening more often.

"Seeing dolphins makes me happy," he beams. On a recent day, he proudly recounted how he spotted a baby dolphin beached on a river stone and helped save it.

A resident carries a female dolphin after it died stranded in the shallow waters of Pakistan's river Indus in Sukkar.
/ Shahid Ali AFP via Getty Images
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Shahid Ali AFP via Getty Images
A resident carries a female dolphin after it died stranded in the shallow waters of Pakistan's river Indus in Sukkur.

Engaging fisherfolk as citizen scientists is just the latest effort conservationists are trying as they, against all odds, slowly revive the numbers of the Indus River dolphin. From roughly 150 dolphins counted in 1974, there are now nearly2,000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

It is a rare piece of good news, conservationists say, with caveats: "They are very, very vulnerable, especially because all the animals are in a single river," says Gill Braulik, a global expert. That river, the Indus, is one of the world's most polluted. If there is any change to the river conditions, from a boiling heatwave to a large toxic spill, the dolphins could be wiped out.

Another caveat: The impoverished fisherfolk who help protect the endangered dolphin compete with them for the same meager hauls. "We are helping the dolphins, but who will help us?" asks Gulan Khatoon, a 45-year-old fisherwoman.

The growing numbers of Indus River Dolphin is partly due to wildlife officers in the southern province of Sindh. The officers, some of whom are the descendants of a river-dwelling community of dolphin hunters, act as first responders to rescue dolphins stranded in irrigation canals that branch for miles out of the Indus. They also provide the boats, the muscle and the experience for researchers to spend weeks on boats on the Indus, counting and surveying the creatures.

In this photograph taken in April 2022, a Pakistani naval officer guards a documentary team as they boat down a stretch of the Indus River near the southern Pakistani town of Sehwan. Researchers say one challenge they face in observing, or counting, the Indus River dolphin is the lack of security around the river. Outlaws live by the river banks and have attacked researchers in the past.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
In this photograph taken in April 2022, a Pakistani naval officer guards a documentary team as they boat down a stretch of the Indus River near the southern Pakistani town of Sehwan. Researchers say one challenge they face in observing, or counting, the Indus River dolphin is the lack of security around the river. Outlaws live by the river banks and have attacked researchers in the past.

Then there's the role of the fisherfolk.

For years now, the WWF has incentivized farmers and fisherfolk to call in dolphin sightings, especially of stranded dolphins. Some get a small cash sum if they use their boats to reach the area: the fisherfolk are mostly poor, and the fuel is expensive, and so the money makes a difference. Others are celebrated on social media, which can encourage others to call in dolphin sightings and help on rescues. Constant visits by field officers gives this deeply poor and marginalized community a sense of importance.

The WWF also tries to convey that the survival of fisherfolk is linked to the dolphin, says Uzma Khan, Asia coordinator for WWF's River Dolphin River Initiative. A river that is heathy enough to sustain dolphins, sustains fish and ... fisherfolk. "We try to tell fishermen there are rivers where there are no dolphins and where there are no dolphins, there are no fish," she says.

She says it's worked for a cohort of locals, who have joined the WWF's "Friends of Dolphins" club where they meet regularly to discuss sightings and river quality. "Now we see communities reporting dolphin sightings regularly. They are our eyes and ears," says Khan.

What we do — and don't — know about this mysterious dolphin

This dolphin died after being stranded in the shallow waters of the Indus River.
/ Shahid Ali/AFP via Getty Images
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Shahid Ali/AFP via Getty Images
This dolphin died after being stranded in the shallow waters of the Indus River.

The Indus River dolphin is an ancient creature that swims among us.

Alongside the endangered Ganges River Dolphin, which is largely found in neighboring India, they are the only extant members of a superfamily of cetaceans called the Plantanista (cetaceans are whales, porpoises and dolphins). They appear to have diverged from other cetaceans between 24 to 34 million years ago, when their ancestors inhabited the Tethys, a prehistoric sea. One theory holds that as the Tethys receded and the sub-continent emerged, the dolphins adapted to live in the rivers watered by the high Asia mountains, including the Himalayas.

Yet little is known about the Indus River dolphin – only in 2021 was it recognized as adistinct species, becoming one of only six freshwater cetaceans.

The last attempt at acomprehensive survey of the Indus River dolphin's numbers in 2022 was curtailed out of concern that outlaws who live by the river bank would attack researchers. Khan, from the WWF, recalled in a TEDx lecture that during one survey, "we had our boats shot at. We had our teams taken hostage."

It doesn't help their fortunes that the Indus River dolphin is not cute. They don't leap out of the water in lovely arcs, or play around boats like sea-dwelling dolphins. They aren't even pink, like Amazon river dolphins.

No.

The Indus River dolphin is drab. Fleshy. It has a beak-like nose with pointy teeth. It swims sideways: One theory suggests it helps the dolphin navigateits way through patches of shallow water.

And the Indus River dolphin will never meet your eye as sea dolphins appear to do. It has tiny pinholes for eyes, because these dolphins evolved to live in the Indus, which carries down silt from towering mountains, reducing visibility to less than an inch downstream. Instead, it has a highly advanced sonar system.

Enter citizen science

Living in such turbid waters, these dolphins are difficult for researchers to observe. So in March, the WWF began another pilot to understand the life and threats facing the dolphin: a dedicated citizen science program for illiterate fisherfolk.

The World Wildlife Foundation has developed a notebook to help local fisherfolk, who are typically illiterate, identify the size of a dolphin they have spotted, the time of day for the sighting and the dolphin's condition: alive or deceased.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
The World Wildlife Foundation has developed a notebook to help local fisherfolk, who are typically illiterate, identify the size of a dolphin they have spotted, the time of day for the sighting and the dolphin's condition: alive or deceased.

On a sunny June day, a WWF conservation officer, Mohammad Imran, shows us a notebook they developed. It has identical, tear-out sheets printed with icons that fisherfolk can circle. "What is the size of the dolphin?" he asks. There's three icons of a dolphin – a large for adults, medium for adolescents and small for babies. There's a sun and a moon: were they spotted in the day or night? There's an image of a live dolphin and a dead dolphin.

More images seek to clarify how the dolphin might have died. There's a fishing net — entanglements are frequent. There's a generator to signpost the practice of some fisherfolk using electric shocks to kill and catch fish. There's a bottle of poison: Some dump pesticides into the river to kill fish — and everything else. A gun indicates poachers.

All those dangers have curtailed dolphin numbers even as dam building has shrunk their habitat from some2,100 miles of the Indus, and its five tributary rivers to one 428-mile stretch of the lower Indus River.

The largest dolphin pod, some 1,000, live in a 90-mile stretch of the Indus between two barrages - a river barrier akin to a dam, but which doesn't trap as much water. To show us how the conservationists are working with fisherfolk, Imran of the WWF took us out to meet some two dozen of them in a sprawling thatched hut near one of those barrages.

Another WWF employee, Mohammad Ali, joined them, asking fisherfolk for the most recent sightings of dolphins. Another representative, Haseena Tumrani, tells fisherman Sikander Ali (a common family name) that they've since sighted the baby dolphin close to its mother. But she wants to know more about why it was beached, and asks Ali if he recorded any video of it on his phone. He didn't.

Ali's phone is old school and cheap. A good day's catch is 20 pounds of fish, fetching a price of some $7, which he usually spends within days on his wife and three children. "It's difficult to survive," he says. "We don't meet our needs."

So why spend time rescuing dolphins? Ali simply says he feels like it's a service he can offer. He says he began caring about them after the WWF came to his village for awareness raising sessions. "Before the WWF, we couldn't care less about dolphins, even if they were injured or dead," he says. Now, "even if we see a dead dolphin, we inform the WWF."

Another fisherman, Ashique Ali, says they protect dolphins because it's the right thing to do. "We are not greedy. We are not employees at WWF. We protect the dolphin because it is the creature of God."

Khatoon, the fisherwoman, nods nearby. Dolphin rescues please her. "We feel happy when we protect them. Dolphins are our friends."

Maybe more like: frenemy.

She takes NPR journalists on her boat a few feet from the riverbank to show dolphins swimming nearby. "Do you see them?" — pointing to what looks like (to me) small waves in the distance. They're barely distinguishable from the murky water. "They're coming up for air!" she exclaims.

Khatoon is delighted – but frustrated. Her volunteer work helping save the dolphin comes at a steep price. She is 45-year-old subsistence fisherwoman with nine children to feed. If there's no catch, they don't eat.

"When we protect dolphins, we catch less fish," she says. They often follow her boat because they know she's going to catch fish, "and they want to eat." She and her sons splash water wildly to scare the dolphins away so they won't snatch the fish they're trying to snare or get tangled in her fishing net. Otherwise her catch is reduce – and that means less money for her and less food for her children. "We care about the dolphins," she says. "We don't kill them. In fact we protect them. But what reward do we receive?"

Fishermen seek their catch down a stretch of the Indus River near the southern Pakistani town of Sehwan.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
Fishermen seek their catch down a stretch of the Indus River near the southern Pakistani town of Sehwan.

Sikander Ali, the fisherman who rescued the baby dolphin, sees it differently — the river is for all its creatures, he believes. "It's a matter of destiny," he says, "how much fish we catch, and how many the dolphins catch."

With additional reporting by Abdul Sattar and Veengas in Mohammad Alam Mirani villageCQ and Sukkur.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.