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Lease of life: The 185-km long Beas Conservation Reserve is helping protect many endangered aquatic species

Today, the Beas in Punjab is the only Indian habitat of the functionally blind mammal, which uses echolocation to navigate underwater and hunt for food. “Till 2017, there was no legal protection for this area from the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Declaring it a conservation reserve was important,” says Kuldeep Kumar, Punjab’s principal chief conservator of forests.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Feb 23, 2020, 09.22 AM IST
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A flock of bar-headed geese in the Beas
The Indus river dolphin was thought to have disappeared from the Beas river, fragmented by dams, barrages and canals.

The bulk of the 1,800-odd members of the endangered mammal species now live in the lower Indus in Pakistan. So there was much excitement when an Indus dolphin was spotted in the Beas in 2007. Today, the Beas is the only Indian habitat of the functionally blind mammal, which uses echolocation to navigate underwater and hunt for food.

The presence of bhulan, as the dolphin is locally known, and the reintroduction of the long-snouted gharial, also critically endangered, into the Beas led the Punjab government to declare the 185-km Beas stretch a conservation reserve in 2017 — the first river in India to be accorded this status.



“Till 2017, there was no legal protection for this area from the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Declaring it a conservation reserve was important for the protection of these endangered species,” says Kuldeep Kumar, Punjab’s principal chief conservator of forests.

Commercial fishing and netting have since been banned and the number of dolphins in the Beas is now estimated at 10, including calves, which indicates that this is a breeding population.
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“Since the area was declared a reserve, indiscriminate fishing has significantly come down,” says Suresh Babu, director-river basins & water policy at World Wildlife Fund-India, a non-profit working with the Punjab forest department in conservation efforts.

The presence of dolphins is an indication of the health of the Beas ecosystem which is also home to other rare species like the fishing cat and the smooth-coated Indian otter. The river is also home to over 500 species of birds and over 90 kinds of fish.

In 2018, 47 gharials, a fish-eating crocodile that had become locally extinct in the 1980s, were added to this river ecosystem. Twentyfive more gharial hatchlings from a hatchery in Morena, Madhya Pradesh, are likely to be released into the river soon.

Conservationists also hope that one day, gharials may even return to the Indus river system in Pakistan, the semiaquatic reptile’s natural habitat till the 1930s. “If a few individual gharials go down about 19 km and swim into Pakistan, it is a bonus. Wildlife has no borders,” says BC Choudhury, wildlife scientist and an expert on the gharial. Pakistan has no conservation programme for the reptile.
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An Indus river Dolphin


However, Choudhury advises caution about flooding the area with too many crocodiles since not all 185 km of the Beas river is ideal for the gharial.

Romulus Whitaker, a conservationist, says follow-up is crucial when re-introducing such extinct species. “Whether such releases actually make a difference can only be judged in the years and decades after the release.” Initially, locals feared the gharials may attack them or their livestock. But Kuldeep Kumar says they were reassured that the gharial, unlike the mugger crocodile, does not attack people.

At the moment, the major challenge facing the Beas Conservation Reserve is dams, which affect water flow into the fragile river ecosystem. “It is a highly altered river system caught between two dams. What we now see is a flow regulated by the dams upstream, which can cause huge fluctuations and affect habitats,” says WWF’s Suresh Babu.

To resolve this, the Punjab government has set up a panel to develop a water flow regime. A report is expected in the next few months.

A long-term plan for the conservation reserve is also being formulated, which will formalise permanent guidelines for the ecosystem, says Choudhury. Last September, the efforts were recognised globally when the reserve was named a Ramsar site under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. “It is a matter of pride. It shows the value given to this area,” says Babu.

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Gharials, which disappeared from the river, have been reintroduced

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