Dolphins

Found worldwide in tropical waters, dolphins are marine mammals closely related to porpoises and whales. Among the three, dolphins are known to be human-friendly with highly developed sound, communication and other abilities. They are also extremely intelligent – for example, they can distinguish between a real animal and its own mirror reflection. In fact, they have the largest brains relative to body size of any living species, a fact scientists believe relates to the strength of their cognitive abilities. It has been proved that dolphins are highly evolved which make them good therapists, help other dolphins during birthing, are altruistic and known to rescue humans either lost at sea, drowning or attacked by sharks.


In 2009 the Gangetic river dolphin (Platanista gangetica) was declared as India’s National Aquatic Animal by the National River Ganga Basin Authority. Their very presence indicates a congenial wild habitat like that of the river Chambal, a tributary of the Yamuna. Yet dolphin poaching is rampant on India’s coastline and in the country’s rivers although harpooning them has stopped. For example, five dead dolphins and finless porpoises (they are similar to dolphins and without fins) were washed ashore in different parts of Mumbai around March and April 2015. Poaching and smuggling was suspected since one of the dolphins had a rope tied around it, but it could not be proved for reasons best known to the forest department no post-mortem was carried out. In fact, it happens periodically… in August 2017 carcasses of an 8 foot long Humpback dolphin and a 4 foot porpoise were washed up at different places on Mumbai’s shores.

In 2012 it was estimated that there were 2,587 dolphins in India; and together India, Bangladesh and Nepal had 3,061. (The 2012-13 Uttar Pradesh census found only 671 dolphins and stated that increasing effluent discharge was driving river dolphins towards extinction. But by 2015 their numbers had almost doubled to 1,272.) Female dolphins attain sexual maturity when 10 years old, and males at 8 years. In dolphins gestation is 9 to 10 months and they give birth to a single baby only. Pregnancies are 2 to 3 years apart. Therefore their multiplication does not offset their annual estimated death rate of 150. Their life span is 25-28 years during which time they give birth to no more than 5-6 pups but the environment should be conducive – not polluted or river heavily silted because they breed in deep waters and feed in shallow waters.

Over long stretches of the Ganga dolphins are missing with 50% of the population in Bihar. (1967 was when the last dolphin was sighted in the Yamuna at Delhi.) A comprehensive survey of the dolphin population was therefore made a part of the Clean Ganga Mission with participation of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. (Jharkhand through which the Ganga also flows has no dolphins.) The dolphin is considered an indicator species because its numbers and distribution is an indication of the health of the river.

The estimated population of the Gangetic dolphin in its habitat of Gangetic-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Karnaphuli-Sangu river systems in India, Nepal and Bangladesh was 2,500 to 3,000 only, and since more than 80% of them were found within India, in 2015 the Government of India sanctioned Rs 4 crores to save the Gangetic dolphin.

This was reiterated in 2016 when the Ganges river dolphin (in addition to Great Indian bustard, the Manipur Sangai deer and the dugong) was chosen by the National Board of Wildlife which constituted a committee to develop guidelines to help them.

In 2016 Guwahati (Assam) became the first city in India to declare the Gangetic river dolphin called Xixu as the city’s official mascot.

In December 2019 the first meeting of the National Ganga Council (headed by the PM and comprising 5 CMs of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Bihar & Jharkhand, 9 Union Ministers, and the NITI Aayog VC) tasked with the “protection, prevention, control and abatement of environmental pollution in River Ganga and its rejuvenation to its natural and pristine condition and to ensure continuous adequate flow of water” was held at Kanpur with a proposal to save and enhance the population of the Gangetic Dolphin. The meeting also discussed the concept of ‘River Cities’ and decided to provide sewer connections under Namami Gange programme to all houses in towns along the Ganga and its tributaries.


Meat and Oil


Meat of dolphins is openly sold in fish markets at Kumta, Ankola, Karwar and Canacona in Uttara Kannada, Karnataka. As dolphin meat and oil is fast becoming popular, poaching by fishermen is on the rise on the Kumta-Panaji stretch and the number of endangered bottlenose dolphins found in the Arabian Sea, classified under Schedule I of the Wild Life Act, 1972, are falling. Dolphin-spotting on pristine beaches is being replaced by dolphin slaughter for meat, and dolphin oil is used in locally-made medicines and tonics and for massaging painful joints.

Dolphins swim with other fish like mackerel, sardine, seer and pomfret, often landing in fishing nets – some accidentally get caught or killed. In November 2019 a dolphin died after struggling for two days to escape from a narrow polluted canal in West Bengal’s East Midnapore district where it was trapped in fishing nets. (Fishermen who consider dolphins to be God release them back into the sea.) Plastic bags can also be death traps for fish and other aquatic life if they find their way into streams: studies have indicated that marine life like dolphins and turtles have mistaken plastic for jellyfish, and having consumed it, died.

There is ban on the import of shrimps from India harvested by fishing vessels not fitted with TEDs. (The Turtle Excluder Device as per international law consists of a trap door placed in shrimp nets, allowing air breathing sea turtles to escape without drowning). Nevertheless, the killing of turtles and some dolphins is attributed to reckless and illegal fishing by trawlers in prohibited areas along our coastline. Some fishermen claim that iron ore jetties are responsible for forcing dolphins and other fish to stray close to the beaches in search for food thus making them easy prey for humans.

Fish markets in our towns and cities stock just about every variety of fish, obtained in parcels from various parts of India. These parcels sometimes contain unwanted flesh, like that of dolphins’ which is sent back or thrown away. (Day in and day out, across the country, in every city, town and village where fish is available, a considerable amount of unsold, rotten and stinking fish are discarded.)

There is, however, a definite market for dolphin carcasses in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where they are sold mainly for consumption by tourists for around Rs 2000/- to Rs 2,500/- depending on size; also some Goan hotels buy dolphin meat for as much as Rs 500/- a kilogram.

The Ganges dolphin, worshiped as the river’s vaahan is another endangered specie of the 32 different types of dolphins found in India. River dolphins live in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and their tributaries, so much so that the hihu or xihu (dolphin in Assamese) has been declared Assam’s aquatic animal. They are also protected at the Vikramshila Ganges River Dolphin Sanctuary in Bihar. Between January and March 2018 a total of 962 Gangetic dolphins were found in Assam: 877 in the Brahmaputra, 48 in the Subansiri and 37 in the Kulsi rivers.

2,200 years ago, the Emperor Ashoka banned killing puputaka, as Ganges dolphins were then known, although the fresh water dolphin was officially documented in the year 1801. This aquatic animal was included in a government decree in the Vth Pillar Edict. Some years back it was estimated that annually 100 of these greyish-brown and as-good-as-blind river dolphins, colloquially referred to as susu or susuk along the Ganges due to the typical sound “sooooooosssssss” they make, are poached.

Dolphin oil extracted from the thick layer of fat of these aquatic mammals is of higher demand than dolphin meat. People used to burn this oil to light their homes during the Mughal period. Dolphin oil continues to be commonly used by fishermen, particularly in Assam, Bihar and West Bengal, as an ingredient in fishing bait. It is added to roasted goat intestines, poultry waste and charred bamboo. To better attract fish, piece of dolphin meat are suspended on fishing lines and hooks that have been soaked in dolphin oil.

Prison Performances
It is unfortunate that a sunset cruise on the Arabian Sea to spot dolphins is what few people appreciate as compared to almost every one unthinkingly visiting dolphinariums.

In many countries such as America and Japan, dolphins and sea lions are made to perform in aquariums, often in heavily chlorinated water which burns their eyes.

Training and discipline is based on hunger. They bounce balls and jump hoops in order to be rewarded with dead fish to fill their tummies. If and when dolphins put on weight, they are fed less and are cruelly trained to play basket-ball, jump over ropes and slow dance.

To top it off sea lions are trained to feed fish to dolphins… certainly ‘educational exhibits’ of cruelty, no different to animals performing in circuses. Unimaginable torment lies behind making any creature feed another, far worse than say teaching a lion to ride a horse, as observed in some Chinese circuses.

Just like animals in circuses have in a fit of anger and resentment killed their trainers, it can happen in water parks. For example, in 2010 at Sea World, Florida, a killer whale, in front of the audience grabbed a 16 year experienced trainer (who was rubbing the whale’s head) by her waist, thrashed around and pushed her underwater. Earlier the whale had killed two other humans.

At Dolphin City, Mahabalipuram, 46 km from Chennai, American sea-lion performances used to occur daily. In 1998 BWC had objected when dolphins were initially brought to this amusement park and made to perform thrice a day in order to make quick money. Within six months of their arrival from Bulgaria, all four died. That’s when the management introduced more sea-lions and trained them by the ‘carrot and stick’ method of withholding food so they would “perform a number of tricks to amuse people”. Many sea-lions also died and the Central Zoo Authority of India refused them the mandatory recognition needed to continue operations. Neither dolphin nor sea-lion shows at Dolphin City have therefore existed for over a decade.
Cruel Proposed Projects – eventually banned!

Surprisingly, the failure of this dolphinarium, did not deter India from contemplating similar ventures. BWC wondered whether politicians and others were aware that many dolphins die during capture from the wild, transportation and training; others refuse to eat in captivity thus effectively committing suicide – which clearly says it all. The stress and strain ranging from the basic unnatural surroundings and cruel training to loud sounds such as music and the presence of people, is very difficult for dolphins to tolerate.

Proposals to set up dolphinariums and aquatic parks at different places kept cropping up like at Mumbai, Sindhurdurg, Pune, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Visakhapatnam and Bengaluru. BWC wondered why at a time when more and more people in different countries were becoming concerned and speaking out and objecting to aquariums and dolphinariums, we in India thought of setting up elaborate aquariums – for what and whose benefit?

Some argued that setting up dolphin parks, etc. promotes eco-tourism. On the contrary, the environment gets harmed. Realising cetaceans can not adapt living in captivity Costa Rica, Chile and Cyprus have banned dolphinariums. Citing this and providing relevant information, Beauty Without Cruelty approached the Ministry of Environment & Forests to add Dolphins to the list of species not allowed to be exhibited or trained as performing animals, and thus forestall their abuse.

Terrible as it sounds in Mumbai too there was a move to build an underground aquarium at Mahalaxmi race course. It seems the Mayor was inspired by the Singapore Underwater World and wanted the 226 acre race course to be turned into a tourist attraction with a dolphin park and aquarium. It is shocking that the creatures housed in Singapore are not given the ‘right’ diet as is evident from the birthday cake presented to the sea cow, a highly endangered species.

Similarly claiming to be inspired by projects in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, the Tourism and Public Works Minister (Government of Maharashtra) planned to set up a Sea World project in Konkan where dolphins and other species from the polar-regions like seals and penguins would be housed. The MTDC (Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation) with the help of the Science & Technology Park, Pune (an institute set up by the Ministry of Science & Technology, Government of India and University of Pune) conducted a feasibility and viability study, following which in October 2011 the Chief Minister gave an in-principle approval to this Rs 510 crore project that would promote 720 kms along the coast. Beauty Without Cruelty wrote to the Industries Minister who was also the Guardian Minister of Sindhurdurg against the setting up of this Sea World. The blueprint had a giant aquarium, a dolphin park and a stadium, a facility to train dolphins, guest houses, a theatre and theme restaurants. The government had initially planned to set it up in the sea, but changed plans to cover 200 acres of land instead, stating that the required water would be drawn from the sea through outlets. Further inquires by animal activists revealed that marine life including dolphins from Indian waters within a large fenced area in the sea would be displayed and no creatures would be imported.

In December 2011 the Union Ministry for Environment & Forests asked the state government of Maharashtra “not to entertain the proposal of construction of Dolphinarium/Water Parks at Sindhurdurg through Private Public Partnership (PPP), which is meant for commercial purpose, and not permitted under Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.” As mentioned above, BWC had appealed to them to stop dolphin performances in India. However in early 2012 the Maharashtra Tourism Minister asked the Science & Technology Park to again come up with a detailed project report and chart out a plan as to how to go about it.

Then, in April 2012 an article appeared detailing plans for a “seaworld oceanarium with dolphin shows” at Thane. A tender inviting construction had also been floated. BWC immediately alerted the Ministry of Environment & Forests requesting that they nip the project in the bud.

In November 2012, Beauty Without Cruelty wrote to the Ministry of Environment & Forests requesting that like they had last year asked the Maharashtra state government not to go ahead with the dolphinarium/water park at Sindhurdurg, similarly they should ask the Kerala state government to immediately stop the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) plan of setting up a Dolphin Park. Apart from cruelty to dolphins, it would be a commercial venture and not permitted under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. An earlier plan of the Department of Fisheries had been dropped due to the proposed use of backwaters, hence, this new project in consultation with teams from Singapore and Dubai, proposed an artificial pool. BWC felt it was bad enough to house dolphins, but worse that they were also looking into the possibility of introducing seals into the park. However, by the end of the year the good news was that the project was at a standstill and would hopefully be abandoned even though the GCDA later claimed to be going ahead with their plans to set up the Dolphin Park. A welcome contrast was MTDC organising a Dolphin (spotting) and Turtle (watching) festival on the beaches of Murud-Harnai and Velas in March 2013 with the aim of making the area one of the main tourist destinations in Maharashtra.


Dolphin-spotting also occurs on the Chilika Lake by devotees visiting the Jagannath Temple at Puri. In ancient scriptures dolphins were considered the divine fish – Matsya avatar, the incarnation of Vishnu so it is not surprising that they are found just 40 kms away from the temple. But the sad thing is that a growing number of noisy motor boats make the dolphins flee. They are chased for sightings and get cut by boat propellers often. In March 2014, BWC wrote to the government to restrict the number of boats at a time and ask the local authorities to ensure that they glide far away and wait patiently in one place for sightings.


Another area where dolphin tourism flourishes is in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, particularly in Devbag and Tarkali villages which have hundreds of boats ferrying tourists. In 2014-15 biologists created awareness via posters for tourists and provided guidelines for tour operators and boatmen.

Every day dolphin sighting trips have been conducted by locals in North and South Goa. There was a time when on seeing dolphins the boatman would rush towards them to let the occupants get a closer look but they were advised by environmentalists to keep a safe distance so that the mammals are not chased away or their habitat harmed.

In January 2013 under directions from the Ministry of Environment & Forests, the Animal Welfare Board of India citing recent plans at Kochi, Sindhudurg, NOIDA and Mumbai warned all state governments against the setting up dolphinariums. Despite this, since the GCDA (Kochi) declared their determination to set up the Dolphin Park, BWC immediately wrote to the Minister of Environment & Forests requesting that dolphins be placed in the list of animals notified that are not allowed to be exhibited or trained as performing animals. BWC also requested that the Ministry not allow the import of dolphins or any other creatures such as seals and sea-lions, just like such permission had not granted at Mahabalipuram for import of dolphins a decade ago.

Eventually in May 2013 on grounds of cruelty and commercialisation of wildlife the Ministry of Environment & Forests rejected all proposals to set up dolphinariums anywhere in India. The circular issued by the Central Zoo Authority can be read here.


Hunting Cetaceans
Atrocities against cetaceans are increasing worldwide. Small whales and dolphins are killed in Japan, Faroe Islands, Chile and Turkey.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has semi-regulatory authority over Japan that argues that dolphins are small cetaceans and therefore should not be regulated like whales. The IWC countries that agree with Japan’s whaling policies (as a result of substantial infusion of capital) are Cambodia, Equator, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, Laos, and Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The Japanese method known as drive hunting (herding into a natural bay or cove) is considered the most inhumane and occurs daily in coastal towns of Japan like Taiji, Futo and Iwate between 1st September and 31st March. Although traditionally slaughtered for their meat, carcases are also used for fertilizers and pet foods. Taiji is not only responsible for typically butchering pilot whales, but subjecting bottlenose dolphins to a lifetime of captivity and servitude: it is the only place in the world where dolphins can easily be purchased.
The Cove
A documentary called “The Cove” has blown the lid off a horrific Japanese dolphin fishery at Taiji. It can be seen at http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/cove/

In 2009 the Australian shire or county of Broome decided to suspend its sister-city relationship with the Japanese dolphin killing town of Taiji. BWC India was a signatory to the petition urging the Shire of Broome Council to cut its ties with Taiji.

This sent Japan the message that the international community opposed its annual slaughter of 23,000 dolphins. Although Broome’s decision added to the international pressure on Japan to end the slaughter, Japan did not cease killing dolphins.

“The Cove” won an Oscar and several other awards. Interestingly, while being made it was discovered that dolphin meat contained was toxic and highly poisonous due to 2000ppm mercury content from dolphins having eaten mercury tainted fish. Mercury poisoning causes horrible birth defects as has happened in Japan.
Massacre in Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands are since 1948 a self-governing territory within the Kingdom of Denmark (consisting of the Denmark, Greenland and Faroe Islands). It is therefore not the Danish, but the Faroese who barbarically kill whales and dolphins.

The non-commercial hunts called grindadráp are organised by the community as a part of their culture and considered a rite of passage for young men and a spectacular sport for the women who are onlookers. The hunters surround the cetaceans in a wide semicircle of boats driving them to the bottom of a fjord where on the shore the mass massacre occurs in water which quickly turns red with blood. Here again, medical officers have recommended that the flesh not be consumed because of high toxins.

A gruesome film of the massacre can be seen at
www.protecttheocean.com/denmark-continues-dolphin-slaughter-warning-graphic-images/

Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans
Animal rights activists are being supported by marine biologists, philosophers and others in declaring that cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) have rights akin to humans because of their astonishing intelligence and emotional empathy.

The declaration of rights states every individual dolphin, whale and porpoise has the right to life and liberty and not only should they not be killed by hunting, but none should be kept in captivity or servitude or subject to cruel treatment. It states that no cetacean can be the property of any individual or government and calls for the legal protection of their natural environment and a ban on any activity that disrupts their ‘cultures’ which could include underwater military sonar that disturbs their acoustic communications.

For about half a century the US Navy’s mine-warfare branch has been training dolphins and sea lions to detect underwater mines and some times deactivate them. However it has been decided that by 2017 the mammals will be phased out and replaced by robotic mine-hunters.


In 2015 more than 300 parks worldwide (mainly in Japan, USA, Mexico, Europe and China) featured marine mammals of which 2,913 (90%) were dolphins. However, many dolphins that were taken captive to perform in shows at marine parks which became popular in the 1960s are being now taught how to live in the wild again.

Page last updated on 13/04/20