Human-dolphin coexistence in Nepal: Why we need a traditional perspective

This blog has been adapted from the original version published here.

By Anu Rai

As a member of a team dedicated to conserving Ganges river dolphins in Nepal, I was overjoyed when CLP selected us for one of its Follow-Up Awards last year. The award has allowed us to start reducing the threats faced by this Endangered dolphin, which includes engaging the indigenous communities that have lived alongside it for generations.

A rarely sighted Endangered Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica) in the Karnali River, Nepal © Dolphin Conservation Center, Kailali

One of our key goals as part of our CLP project is to stop accidental entanglements and mortalities of river dolphins in fishing nets, building on findings from our previous CLP-funded project in 2013.

Engaging with the local fishing communities, and understanding their traditional views and perceptions of the dolphins they live alongside, is an incredibly important part of our project and something I personally enjoy; there is nothing more magical than hearing the local people relaying their experiences. I truly believe our field work and other activities must be complemented by the rich knowledge they have amassed over multiple generations of co-existence.

The widespread use of gillnets by fisheries are a key threat to the Ganges river dolphin in the Karnali River, Nepal © Gopal Khanal

As a team we carry out a lot of our field work on the Karnali River in Nepal, a place that now feels like a second home to me! Together with the Sharda River in India, the Karnali forms a major left bank tributary of the Ganges. Originating in the southern slopes of the Tibetan Plateau, this river flows south through one of the most remote and least explored areas of Nepal.

On the foothills of this great river, we are occasionally lucky enough to glimpse the rare and elusive Ganges river dolphin, which has long been part of the culture of the local people who live along the river’s banks.

The Karnali River in Nepal harbours some of the last remaining Ganges river dolphins in the world © Gopal Khanal

I was delighted when one recent visit here made me privy to some local stories and indigenous knowledge about dolphins and fishery from women in the local Sonaha ethnic group.

As a child, Laxmi and her father often went out fishing on the river in their small boat. She recalls asking her father why, even when they were in such close proximity, the dolphins did not overturn their boats. Her father told her that the boats were like a brother-in-law to the dolphins and so they never touched them.

An adult Ganges river dolphin weighs around 150 kg – about the weight of an average upright piano – and its size ranges from 1.5 to 2.5 metres. It also surfaces every few minutes for air. So an adult dolphin could easily overturn a boat, but I have never heard of that happening in any of my field surveys.

My guess is that the dolphins have developed some sort of avoidance mechanism to allow them to co-exist with humans. This is certainly plausible given how much dolphins have been exposed to us; they have long persisted in human-dominated river systems and have shown close association with sites of frequent human use, such as bathing and washing ghats, ferry ghats and cremation ghats (as described by Sinha and Kannan, 2014).

River dolphins have long co-existed with humans through their close association with sites of frequent human use © Ganesh Chowdhury

But the way people make up stories to explain this phenomenon is quite interesting to me. In ancient times, humans made up stories to make sense of the frightening world around them. I believe Nepal has many such undiscovered stories and it is high time we document them – and not just through verbal communication.

In a different conversation with Goma, another local Sonaha woman, she recalled the use of ‘Bhusauli’ – a mixture of husk and buffalo dung – which the community had previously used as fishing bait. They would put Bhusauli on the rocks in the river to attract fish and, after a couple of hours, they would use nets to catch the fish. But now she says this method does not work because the water level has decreased, along with the number of fish.

You can watch my conversations with Goma and Laxmi in the video below.

The official statistics confirm Goma’s suspicions. Globally, there has been a drop in the population of freshwater species of fish – estimated as a decline of 83% of average abundance since 1970. Likewise, in less than 50 years, the population of migratory freshwater fish has declined by 76%.

Nepal has also registered a decline in fish stocks in several rivers but there are few studies documenting the extent of these declines. In this case, social surveys come into play. As demonstrated by my chat with Goma, local knowledge is vital in estimating the extent of decline.

This is what our CLP-funded research project is trying to achieve. As more field work is planned, I strive to explore more local stories and indigenous knowledge. We know that such information will support future modes of sustainable living and help address the biodiversity crisis. I intend to use this knowledge to design conservation approaches that enable the harmonious co-existence between humans and nature in Nepal.

A fishing camp next to the Karnali River, Nepal © Gopal Khanal

About the author

CLP alumna Anu Rai is an aspiring environmental researcher and enjoys writing. She has written about pertinent environmental issues in both academic journals and newspaper articles. Her research interests lie in freshwater studies, biodiversity conservation, and geospatial analysis. Currently, she is pursuing her MSc in Environmental Science at Kathmandu University.

As well as being a team member of a 2021 CLP Follow-Up project, Anu is also involved in applying nature-based solutions for the restoration of Nagdaha Lake in Nepal, through Wageningen University’s Nature Based Solutions Challenge 2022.

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Weaving networks in El Impenetrable, Argentina

This blog has been adapted and translated from the original version (in Spanish) published here.

By Isis Ibáñez

The Santa Fe frog (Leptodactylus laticeps) is known as Kururu Pytã in the South American indigenous language, Guaraní © Julian Lescano

The formal name of our CLP project is “Creating the grassroots to conserve the Santa Fe frog in the South American Great Chaco.” But for the non-academic community, we called it the “Kururu Pytã Project.”  Kururu Pytã is the name of our target species – the Santa Fe frog – in Guaraní, a language spoken by the indigenous communities where we work in north-eastern Argentina. We hoped that by using the name Kururu Pytã, the wider public would become engaged in the conservation of this threatened amphibian.

Our project, for which we received a CLP Future Conservationist Award last year, sought to better understand the conservation status of this frog and the threats that affect it through intensive fieldwork in Argentina’s Gran Chaco region. Our ultimate aim was to create a basis for its protection by involving the indigenous and “criollo” communities, researchers, and conservationists through workshops and public participation campaigns. Join us on our project’s last journey!

Isis Ibáñez taking pictures of the Chaco environment © Javier Gutierrez

A quest for knowledge

In autumn 2021, we travelled to the province of Chaco, north-eastern Argentina, to continue planning our fieldwork on the mysterious Kururu Pytã. This species is categorized as Near Threatened globally, but the conservation status of its regional population is largely unknown and many aspects of its biology are still an enigma – key issues that need to be addressed if we are to effectively understand and conserve this species.

On our last field trip as part of our CLP project, we wanted to get to know the local community and explore areas to develop future field campaigns. During the trip, we uncovered for the first time the different realities facing the people that live together in the region. This will help guide the extensive work we are planning in the territory, including creating the first networks of collaboration and communication among the locals.

Two CLP project team members, Camila Deutsch and Gabi Agostini, in the Río Bermejito, Chaco, Argentina © Javier Gutierrez

Between landscapes of quebrachales (dry forests mainly consisting of willow-leaf red quebracho trees) and reddish-coloured rivers characteristic of the region, our first stop was our operational base in the town of Nueva Pompeya, located in the El Impenetrable Zone – an area so-called because of its almost impassable environment of dense, thorny vegetation.

From there, we set off to meet our local stakeholders.

Getting to know the local community

Our first visit was to Rosita, a villager whose home adjoins part of the Bermejito River, an area that appears to be a suitable environment for the Kururu Pytã (that is, rain-floodable lowlands).

We also visited Daniel Jaimes and his family, who had already collaborated with other research groups and warmly welcomed us to share their experiences with the Kururu Pytã. We chatted at length about the social and environmental issues facing the region, such as deforestation, indigenous communities’ land loss and social abandonment. We were also delighted to be taught how to identify the Chaco’s native flora and fauna and learn their local names.

Knowledge exchange with the local community © Javier Gutierrez

Finally, Licindo Tebez received us at his home in El Hacha, where we had the honour of meeting Hugo Correa, Natay Collet, and Genaro Tebez, who, along with Licindo, are part of the Quimilero Project team.

Knowledge exchange with the Quimilero Project team in El Hacha (Left to right: Javier Gutiérrez, Natay Collet, Isis Ibáñez, Licindo Tebez, Gabriela Agostini, Camila Deutsch, Damián Farias, Hugo Correa) © Javier Gutiérrez

This initiative, coordinated by Dr Micaela Camino, aims to protect a peccary species known as “Quimilero” (Catagonus wagneri) and its native environment, the Dry Chaco. During the time we shared, they told us about the enormous scientific and outreach work they carry out together with local people, from whom we have much to learn.

“Quimilero”: the Chacoan Peccary (Catagonus wagneri) © Proyecto Quimilero

An outing to the impenetrable 

Before leaving for our next destination and, despite it being the season of low amphibian activity, we decided to make a night outing through the woodland to see what we could find… And they did not fail us! We were able to see some species of frog (unfortunately not the Kururu Pytã) and other local fauna including a Cope’s toad, a Chaco owl and a southern three-banded armadillo, taking advantage of the darkness of the new moon that allowed us to contemplate an incredibly starry sky.

Chaco Owl (Strix chacoensis) © Javier Gutiérrez

Finally, we headed to Paraje La Armonía, to reach our last destination: the great El Impenetrable National Park, one of the most important protected areas in the Argentine Chaco. This national park is the largest in northern Argentina, and aims to preserve a large proportion of the last native forests of the great Chaco in our country, while also harbouring enormous biodiversity.

We met the protected area rangers, introduced ourselves, and talked about the project. After travelling 36 km along the main road, we arrived at the banks of the Bermejo River; the northern limit of the park facing the province of Formosa.

Río Bermejo, Chaco, Argentina © Javier Gutierrez

During this tour, we were able to explore the diverse environment of the protected area for the first time and work out if there were favourable habitats for the Kururu Pytã. We spent the night in the campsite in front of the mighty Bermejo River and at sunrise, we woke up to the morning songs of the charatas, characteristic birds of the Chaco Mountains. It was the perfect way to end this second trip in the lands of the Kururu Pytã.

El Impenetrable National Park, Chaco, Argentina © Javier Gutierrez

Our last field trip as part of our CLP project also allowed us to exchange information about the Kururu Pytã and inquire about local people’s knowledge and perception about this species in particular, and about amphibians in general. We were also able to talk about the environmental and social problems in the region, such as timber felling, illegal trafficking of flora and fauna, and the encroachment of agriculture on native forests. All of this will be crucial to achieving the objectives of our project.

During these days spent sharing lunches, traditions, knowledge, and mates (a traditional South American tea-like beverage, made using leaves and twigs from the yerba-maté plant) with the local people, we never stopped being surprised by the warmth, hospitality, and positive disposition towards us and our work. We have a long way to go, but we came back full of expectations.

About the author

Isis Ibáñez is a CLP alumna and biology student at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. She is currently finishing a Bachelor’s degree specializing in Animal Ecology. During her undergraduate years, she volunteered in the Great Chaco in Argentina, a region that attracted her because of its great biodiversity and socio-diversity.  She is the leader of the Kururu Pytã Project, which was funded by CLP in 2021, and she is interested in focusing her work as a biologist on applied research in amphibian conservation, as well as working together with the local communities in this territory.

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