A dark shape cleaves the Beas river, leaving a long wake in its trail. From the way it moves, it is neither a human, nor fish, nor even a river dolphin. The shape swims strongly, shrugging off the strong current. It holds its line and makes straight for a sandbar, hauling itself up on a buff-coloured spit.
A black dog, probably feral. It shakes itself free of water and, running across the sand, begins tugging at the beached carcass of a cow. Another bigger dog appears out of nowhere, and the two begin to snarl and gorge, yanking and tearing flesh off the arcing ribs.
River sandbars contain multitudes. I was upstream of Harike, the largest wetland in north India. The critically endangered gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), the fish-eating, long-snouted crocodilian, of which no more than a few hundred survive in the world, bask and nest on these sandbars. Freshwater turtles like the red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga) and the Indian narrow-headed soft-shell turtle (Chitra indica), among the most endangered of freshwater species, use sand islands extensively to breed and to bask. Hundreds of thousands of birds — some transient visitors from China and Siberia and Central Asia wintering here, some resident — forage, nest, breed, raise chicks. Many of these creatures have this in common – they are all threatened, to greater or lesser degree.
The sight of predatory, feral dogs in this delicate ecosystem comes with chilling implications.
Beyond the sandbars, at the far shore, a group of fishermen land with their catch. This 185 km stretch of the Beas is a Conservation Area, where commercial fishing and netting is deemed illegal.
I turn away, mulling these portents of disaster, and almost walk into a man wearing, on his back, a canister of tangerine-colored liquid with a motor and pipes and hoses attached to it. It swishes as he walks, and I catch sight of a small sign in the corner: “WARNING: Don’t spray at people and animals.”
He walks into a field that runs right up to the jagged line of the riverbank and starts the motor up with a deafening put-put-put. He zigs and zags through the wheatfield, painting the stalks and, occasionally, the river, with the toxic chemicals.
The sun is out, but my mood darkens. This concatenation of environmental disasters is not what I had expected to see.
We are walking across Punjab. I met Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and National Geographic fellow, at India’s Wagah border for the Indian leg of the Out of Eden Walk. Salopek is retracing ancient man’s migratory path across the world. A hundred kilometers into India, at Harike, Salopek catches a nasty bug. We decide to park for a few days.
I begin to research the wetland, the largest in north India and a Ramsar site, for its famed migratory birdlife. One line catches my eye: Indus river dolphins, that had “gone extinct in India in the 1930s”, had been “discovered” again in the Beas in 2007. The tantalizing prospect of a rare sighting leads to my driving up from the confluence of the Sutlej and the Beas, north of the Harike Barrage, to the banks of the Beas and into the Conservation Area.
A turbaned boatman stands tall in the prow of a long, low boat that slices across the river towards me. Two farmers crouch between huge stacks of long sarkanda grass — a Saccharum species, one of a handful of types of grass that covered the islands in the river.
“Have you seen bhulan here?”, I call out, as the boat neared the bank. Bhulan, the “long-lipped one,” is the Punjabi name for the Indus river dolphin. Amarjeet Singh, the ex-armyman turned boatman, docks in front of where I stand. As the farmers begin offloading their bundles of grass, Singh points upstream. “I saw two go that way this morning.”
“Can I come with you in your boat to look for the bhulan?” He gives me a quizzical look. I gather that the region gets few visitors. “Sure, if you don’t mind me ferrying people across while we do that,” he says.
I clamber into the boat and we carve a wide arc around a reed island and head into a smooth swathe of deep river. I sit facing upstream, my eyes searching the glassy waters for a flash of fin.
The Indus dolphin, Platanista gangetica minor, is one of two subspecies of freshwater dolphins found in the Indian subcontinent. The other, the Gangetic dolphin, Platanista gangetica gangetica, is native to the Ganga-Brahmaputra river basin.
Both varieties are blind. Thanks to the millions of years spent in silty Himalayan melt waters, the dolphin’s eye lens has lost the ability to see and is able only to discern the direction of light. It navigates, and finds food and mates, by echolocation. Both varieties are side-swimmers; they live in intensely human-dominated river systems and are highly endangered. They are the top predators in a river, and they prey on small fish.
In the 1870s, river dolphins swam the length of the Indus basin from the delta to the foothills of the Himalayas, across what is now India and Pakistan. This was before any barrages interrupted the Indus or its tributaries — the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej.
“The Beas abounds with cyprinus roe, a species of carp, good for eating; also with a species of silurus about the size of a large trout, but very ugly, like a tadpole, and eaten by the natives only; also with tortoises and porpoises and alligators. Some officers the other day went out fishing and are said to have caught more than 1,900 fish.”
Journal Sutlej Campaign Of 1845-6, And Also Of Lord Hardinge’s Tour In The Following Winter, By James Coley, 1856
Coley’s “alligators” were likely gharials, and the “porpoises” were Indus dolphins. The mention that the river “abounds with” these creatures suggests that the Beas must have been full of life in the 19th century.
By 1971, twenty dams and barrages punctuated the Indus and its main tributaries, chopping up the dolphin’s range into seventeen sections. By the 1990s, this fragmentation had slashed the dolphin’s range by 80%. Today, the dolphin is found in only five of sixteen sections in Pakistan. In India it is found only in this one section of the Beas, a stretch bookended by the Pong dam in Himachal Pradesh and the Harike barrage in Punjab.
The Sutlej in this region looks nothing like the Beas. The latter joins the former to flow, as Sutlej, into Pakistan. That is, if you can regard the Sutlej below the Harike barrage as having any “flow” at all — it is more sand than water while upstream, it runs doom black. That is no exaggeration – the river is the colour of heavy fuel oil, and it stinks. Along this length, it has been impregnated with the gunk that the tanneries in Jalandhar, Ludhiana and other upstream towns pump into it. At its fount, the Sutlej is classified A, which is fit to drink; this far down, though, it rates a D or E, as low as it gets on the pollution scale.
On a trip to the Sutlej the previous day, I’d shuddered at the sight of men fishing the black river, which put me in mind of reports of the bioaccumulation of heavy metals in the scales of fish found in that river. The Beas escapes this fate, to some extent — its waters are comparatively cleaner than many rivers in India, but studies have found its waters contaminated with heavy metals and unfit to drink.
On the surface, though, this stretch looks and smells clean. Grass and sedge-covered river islands, mercifully free of plastic trash, are loud with bird life. I see prinias, skimmers, terns, gulls, plovers, stilts, kingfishers, lapwings, coots, grebes, and majestic herons.
These signs of comparative health are good news for the river’s latest denizens. Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) had been released in the Beas Conservation Area by the World Wildlife Fund, India, in an attempt to reintroduce this creature into its historic ranges. A day earlier Dr Gitanjali Kanwar, WWF-India’s coordinator for rivers, wetlands and water policy, had briefed us on this project.
Gharials are critically endangered, with an over 80% drop in population in the last decade. The reptiles introduced into the Beas were juveniles that would take a few years to reach breeding age. Once they become old enough, the female will lay her eggs in the sandbars that stripe this silty river. For now, though, they are not yet strong enough to swim against the current, and thus risk being swept down towards the barrage. Dr. Kanwar and her team do daily transects to make sure no gharial is lost.
If the young gharials survive, and breed, this stretch could one day approximate to what it was like in the 19th century when the river ran free – a prospect, a dream, to precipitate a smile.
Judging by how deep Singh pushes his oar until he strikes mud, we are now in water that is a few meters deep – dolphin territory, for the cetacean likes deep pools of water.
It is not easy to spot river dolphins. Unlike their famous marine cousins, they do not jump and spin and frolic. River dolphins barely break the surface of the water, arcing out of the water and back in within seconds. This unostentatious behavior means a dolphin could well have surfaced beside or behind you and vanished while you scanned the waters ahead. Like Olympic divers, they leave no splash behind.
We scan the waters intently — me looking ahead, Singh behind and to the side. The melodic chant of the evening prayer from the village Gurudwara floats across the still waters.
“River levels are dropping. They,” Singh says softly, pointing upstream with his chin, “are not releasing water.”
This is the beginning of summer; the previous monsoon has not been good, and snowfall has been scant. Farms, towns, and villages along the Beas are thirsty; water is being held back for their needs and as a consequence, this stretch is running low.
A desiccating river is the death knell for dolphins, who love the deep and need at least a couple of meters of water to thrive. A study by leading cetacean researcher Gill T. Braulik show that low dry-season discharge in rivers, due to upstream diversions and impoundment by dams, is the main reason for the declining range of the Indus dolphin. When river levels fall, dolphins are drawn to the deepest parts of the river, where the fish abound. So too are fishermen. The dolphins accidentally get ensnared in their nets – and thus they die.
Area boatmen told me, some weeks later, that water levels had fallen even further by several feet. A Tribune article echoed their alarm, “Beas river going dry, aquatic life in danger.”
These issues are not peculiar to the Beas or the Indus. Two summers ago, I’d witnessed historically low levels in the Ganga. That river system has an added issue: dredging for waterways. Dredging adversely affects dolphins, which rely solely on echolocation. A recent survey in that stretch of the Ganga shows a consequent drop in the population of the Gangetic dolphin.
The strikes were piling up against the freshwater citizens of our rivers.
“There!” Yells Singh from behind me. I whirl around, too late — there is only a ripple to show where a dolphin had surfaced seconds earlier. Like the Iñupiaq “qala” or a “slick of flat water” that follows the submergence of a whale, an oval hush of ripples is the signature of the river dolphin.
I count down 90 seconds, the average time a river dolphin stays under water before coming up for air… 3 … 2… 1…
On cue, not twenty yards away, a curved grey-brown snout breaks the surface, pointing at the sky. Teeth gleam white in the trademark ‘smile’ – and I feel my own smile breaking out in response.
My first sighting of Platanista gangetica minor is a female. The lady disappears underwater and, about 90 seconds later, resurfaces – this time, with a youngster in tow. For the better part of an hour, I watch the dolphin and her calf in utter rapture. There are no other boats around, no gawking tourists, no cannonades of clicking cameras. Just Singh and I – and two of South Asia’s rarest river dolphins, dipping and diving.
What is it about this creature, what is this ineluctable magic that draws us inexorably to even this introverted, rarely seen riverine species of dolphin?
Dolphins are addictive — I returned the next day, and the next. And my luck held – at times I saw the mother and her calf, at other times I sighted a lone male that barely broke the surface, and on occasion he was accompanied by another juvenile male. At times, I was on a boat; at other times I trailed my legs over the jagged edge of the riverbank and watched. Over four days of indulging my obsession I saw four different individuals, multiple times.
A month and a half later, in May 2018, the World Wildlife Fund India carried out the first ever census of the Indus dolphin on this stretch of the Beas, and concluded that between five and eleven individuals — less than a dozen — inhabit these waters, including a mother and a week-old calf.
Shortly after this survey, an irresponsible factory upstream oozed molasses into the Beas. Hundreds of fish died, floating belly up in the river. There was much outrage; some fines were levied – but the damage was done. There is at the time of writing no news of the fate of the dolphins, or the juvenile gharials, though there is some hope they survived the toxic leak.
These 185 kilometres along the sacred Beas are special. Locals have seen bhulan here for decades. They probably never really went extinct, but we will likely never know how many we had. We don’t know if, and if so how, open sluice gates affected these precious creatures. We may never know how many we have lost.
What we do know is that today, we have less than a dozen Indus River dolphins left. This stretch supports this small, albeit important, population — able to breed and perpetuate itself, given a fighting chance.
But for that to happen, this special place needs special attention. The Beas and its critically endangered denizens will thrive only if we actively protect and nurture the river, guard their breeding sites and ensure clean, healthy river flows.
Else, it may not be long before the bhulan in India follows the Chinese baiji into extinction.
A shorter version of this article was published in The Hindu on July 28, 2018