The Unlikely Dolphin Rescue Hot Spot: Pakistan

  • Pakistan’s Indus River is home to one of the world’s rarest dolphin species. By 2001, their numbers had dropped to 1,200.
  • A bold conservation campaign that brings local and global partners together has increased numbers by 50 percent.

Abdul Jabbar was at his wife’s hospital bed in Shikarpur, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, when he received the phone call. Doctors were preparing to operate on his wife, and Jabbar didn’t want to leave her. But his colleague’s message was an urgent one: “You will have to come with me to the rescue.”

It was the 12th of the month of Rabi al-Awwal of the Islamic calendar, one of holiest days in Pakistan — the last prophet’s birthday — and as such, a national holiday. Jabbar knew most of his co-workers wouldn’t be available, so he agreed to come. Two colleagues picked him up in a truck loaded with a foam mattress, a chair, two buckets, towels and a full water tank on the roof.


A dolphin swims along the Indus River in the southern Pakistani city of Sukkur.


They raced 186 miles southeast, toward the canal that was at the center of frenzied social media video shares that day. In the videos, a crowd cheers as men dive into the water, and one emerges with a gray animal flung on his back. Horns blare, smartphones click as photos are taken and videos recorded while hands keep touching the skin of the animal. Twenty minutes later, its skin dry, the dolphin was dead.

That’s just one example of the daily battles that rescue teams such as Jabbar’s wage as they try to protect one of the world’s rarest dolphin species, the Indus river dolphin. Although Jabbar and his colleagues weren’t able to save the dolphin, they made sure the man who carried it out of the water was arrested. And the rescue teams have slowly begun to win more such battles, as a growing movement that includes ordinary citizens and local and global nonprofits is turning Pakistan into an unlikely hub for dolphin conservation.

Dolphins are never mentioned as the key stakeholder of the Indus River.

Uzma Khan, Asia manager, World Wide Fund’s River Dolphin Initiative

In 2001, only 1,200 Indus dolphins remained, victims of attacks and incidents like the one Jabbar and his colleagues tried to prevent, and of pollution and infrastructure projects on the river that depleted it of the animals the dolphins feed on. Recent conservation efforts, though, have increased those numbers by 50 percent to 1,800. More than 100 dolphins have been rescued.

Pakistan Dolphin

Pakistani environmental volunteers rescue a dolphin that was stuck in a canal in Sukkur.

Source Pervez Khan/AP

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan, along with provincial wildlife and fisheries departments, has trained and appointed watchers along the Indus River to be on the lookout for illegal fishing. Guards visit communities and share dolphin-rescue hotline numbers to report incidents of dolphins stranded on the riverbank or in canals. Personnel have been trained how to handle stranded dolphins using special ambulances equipped with water and mattresses. Experts visit schools and conduct awareness sessions. When he visits communities, Jabbar is often asked why he cares so much about the animal.

“I would tell them it is blind,” he says. “It has an echolocation system through which it finds its way. I would tell the elders of the village to do nothing if they saw one. Just call me.”

Fishing communities along the banks of the Indus and its canals have supported the conservation efforts by upgrading their boats and equipment and adopting sustainable fishing practices that won’t endanger the dolphins.

Still, for all these efforts, the Indus dolphin’s habitat is shrinking, encroached upon by cities and the pollution they generate. Ignorance remains common. The man who removed the dolphin from the Indus River that Jabbar and his colleagues were trying to save told a judge he was responding to an impromptu dare by a friend. Rescuers, however, contend that the videos that went viral on social media suggest the incident had been planned.  

Meanwhile, ruthless new fishing practices are posing new obstacles to conservation efforts. Among them is electrofishing, where power generators and batteries are used to create ripples of electric shock in the water to stun fish. The shock can also break their spine. “All of the marine life in the vicinity becomes a target through electrofishing,” says Imran Khan, a WWF manager based in Sukkur, calling it “an emerging threat” to Indus dolphins.

Another threat is presented by dams and barrages, which restrict the movement of dolphins. Conservation experts have voiced concerns over the construction of new dams on the Indus as a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. They argue that the dam reservoirs would affect sediment flow, which in turn would affect the river’s hydrology, threatening the dolphins’ food source and breeding grounds. The ecology that the Indus dolphin needs to survive could be lost.

Conservationists are also worried about Pakistan’s inland waterways project, under which the Indus is to be developed for goods transportation by giant vessels. This too could destroy the dolphin’s habitat. At present, the project is being tested on an estimated 124-mile stretch of the Indus.

Still, despite all these challenges, Pakistan is succeeding in increasing its dolphin numbers. “Dolphins are never mentioned as the key stakeholder of the Indus River,” says Uzma Khan, Asia manager of the WWF’s Global River Dolphin Initiative. Thanks to Pakistan’s growing dolphin conservation movement, they are no longer being ignored.

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