WWF-Pakistan hosts international conference to tackle fisheries threats to river dolphins in Asia

10:52 PM | 6 Oct, 2022
WWF-Pakistan hosts international conference to tackle fisheries threats to river dolphins in Asia

ISLAMABAD - Unsustainable fishing practices are one of the leading threats to river dolphins globally. There are four river dolphin species across eight range countries in Asia today. Of the four, IUCN lists two as endangered and the remaining two as critically endangered. In light of this, WWF-Pakistan hosted an international conference, in partnership with the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and supported by the Engro Foundation, on 5 October to bring the Asian range countries together with leading international scientists to discuss the way forward and work together to address this critical threat. 

Panelists and speakers from countries including Cambodia, Nepal, Bangladesh, China and India pointed out that the ongoing and increasing human-induced changes to freshwater ecosystems are putting river dolphins at ever greater risk. 

All river dolphins live in basins with growing human population pressures and share their habitat with local communities, which also depend on freshwater for sustenance. Looking at Asia, some species have already shown 80 per cent decline in the range due to alteration in river flow regulation, infrastructure development and construction projects. However, the primary cause of decline in the numbers of the Asian river dolphins is entanglement in gillnets, which is generally regarded as the most immediate human-induced threat. The regional conservation management plan will bring together the best available science and management expertise to protect and recover the river dolphin populations. 

There is reason to be hopeful as other species have already shown what collaboration can achieve. Speaking at the conference, Hammad Naqi Khan, Director General WWF-Pakistan stated, “Biodiversity and conservation of wildlife are unfortunately not a priority in Pakistan, but despite that, the conservation of the Indus River dolphin has been a success due to the efforts of conservation organizations and provincial wildlife departments. This conference is unique because we have representation from all river dolphin range countries and our singular aim is to come up with a localised and region-specific, but also global conservation management plan.” To effectively collaborate and for the global alliance to work, strong commitment and political drive are required. Hence, there is a clear need for political leadership to champion the cause. To join forces most efficiently and coordinate resulting actions, WWF is willing to offer support to any river dolphin range state. 

In March this year, WWF-Pakistan and Engro Foundation entered into a first-of-its-kind partnership for the conservation and management of the endangered Indus River dolphins. Favad Soomro, Head of Engro Foundation, said "Engro is striving to solve the most pressing issues facing Pakistan, and protecting Indus River Dolphin, which is endemic to Pakistan and is crucial for the health of the Indus River and life of other species in the river." He explained how the partnership with WWF-Pakistan on Indus River Dolphin protection will be achieved through research, community engagement, and raising the profile of the species globally over the next 5 years.

Daphne Willems, WWF Global River Dolphin River Initiative Lead stated, “All the river dolphins are critically endangered or endangered and we have already lost one river dolphin species. These species are the apex predators of the rivers which is why the entire river ecosystem depends on them and their survival. Likewise, the lives of entire populations living across the length of the rivers are inextricably linked to the river dolphins. The challenges are old, but we need new solution to tackle them.”

Syed Ghulam Qadir Shah from the Ministry of Climate Change added, “Fisheries practices have indeed been a threat to the river dolphins. Fisheries is an important sector since the livelihood of hundreds and thousands of people depend upon it. However, there is a lack of awareness among the fishermen who continue to use old and outdated practices. The ministry is working in this regard as the Indus River is the lifeline of Pakistan. The Living Indus Initiative is one major project where we have multiple cross-cutting sectors, and we hope that they will alleviate some of these unsustainable fishing practices.”

The conference is being attended by individuals representing a wide array of international conservation organizations including WWF International, the Ministry of Climate Change, IWC, WorldFish UK, YASASAN Rasi Indonesia, and government representatives from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and Cambodia.