December 2007 saw the confirmed splashing of several beautiful dolphins. Mothers with their enrapturing calves, adult males on their lonesome quest for food and mate and juveniles swishing the murky waters till darkness descended. A stretch of 60 km from Harike Lake Notch to Karmowala Village and back to Harike Lake Notch, covering different channels were surveyed. The River Sutlej was found to be visibly polluted – low flow, heavy growth of water hyacinth, dark – an unsuitable habitat for river dolphins. The confluence with River Beas however presented a contrasting picture – comparatively less polluted the river has higher flow, deep pools, counter eddy currents, shallow riffle areas and islands in the lower stretches – a suitable habitat for higher vertebrates such as dolphins, otters, crocodilians and turtles. Elderly people from the local village community confirmed the presence of the dolphins, locally named bhuland, apart from gharials, otters and turtles. Around 25 species of birds were also recorded. The sighting has revealed the need of better investigation to ascertain the antecedence of these river dolphins. The WWF team assumed this to be a resident breeding population of River Beas, perhaps a sub population of the Indus River Dolphin, separated from the main population by the construction of the barrages in the Indo-Pak border. Experts suggest that the present population may have been brought into the Beas across the Pakistan barrage by the 1988 floods. Seemingly the small population is viable, but in need of immediate conservation efforts.
The freshwater species of dolphins are considered endangered with a swiftly diminishing population attributable to habitat destruction, rising pollution in rivers and improper usage of fishing nets. Traditionally Harike is not known to be a dolphin habitat and thus this rare sighting has thrilled conservationist worldwide, experts calling it the biggest conservation highlight of recent times. Freshwater dolphins are almost impossible to photograph above water as it is uncommon for the creature to jump clear. When they do come up for air, their hump and blowhole may be viewed briefly. The river dolphins are blind by birth and hence have an intensely developed system of echolocation. They even communicate with each other by way of sound frequencies or ‘clicking’. With a lifespan of twenty to twenty-five years the dolphins can weigh upto 150 kgs. The females reproduce about four times during their lifetime and are usually larger than their counterparts. Breeding takes place between January to June, when the water level in the river remains low. These animals prefer the stay in deep water around the confluence of two or more rivers. Their presence in India’s mighty rivers was registered as far back as 1878 and scientifically established by John Anderson.