Published in The News on October 25, 2015

A new initiative, Taunsa Barrage ecotourism project offers endangered dolphin sighting and other attractions to tourists.

It’s close to sunset and the grayish waters of River Indus in Taunsa Barrage are calm and the wind that was blowing fast in the afternoon is now still. The pin-drop silence, amid the fast fading sunlight, makes the ambience mysterious.

A beautifully decorated boat at a safe distance from the bank catches the attention of bystanders. The boat owner rows the boat and tells a group of young students onboard to look in a certain direction. Suddenly, they scream and jump in excitement. They are told to calm down— else they will scare the dolphins.

The students have come to the barrage in South Punjab for dolphin sighting — an activity that is drawing people here from different parts of the country. A sanctuary for some 465 blind Indus dolphins,a threatened river dolphin species and endemic to River Indus, that live in waters under the Taunsa Barrage, according to the last census of dolphins carried out in 2011.

Though these dolphins have been here for long, a recently launched ecotourism project showcases them before a much larger audience. Earlier, people from nearby cities and towns would come here, picnic, and return home the same day. Now, there are package tours and offers such as night camping on the banks of Indus, bonfire and local music performances, sighting dolphins at sunset, boat safaris and traditional home cooked food to make the experience memorable.

Interestingly, the ownership of the project lies with the local community of Basti Allahwali and Basti Sheikhan that are located on the right and left bank of River Indus respectively. These people own the decorated boats that sail in the river and tents that they offer to visitors so they can spend the night there and see the sunrise in the morning. Staying in a tent is certainly a good option, as the best time for dolphin sighting is early morning or evening when water is calm.

Aftab Rana, President of Sustainable Tourism Foundation Pakistan (STFP), a non-profit organisation working for promotion of eco-friendly tourism, tells TNS that this project is unique in a sense that the livelihood of the local communities has been linked with the conversation of the blind Indus dolphin known as Bulhan in local language. He says the locals would do best to safeguard the dolphin so that people keep visiting the place and help them earn handsome income.

STFP is an implementing partner of this project launched with the help of the National Rural Support Pogramme (NRSP)-USAID Small Grants and Ambassador’s Fund Programme. This programme assists innovative development initiatives aimed at improving local people’s lives and aims to support community developed self-help projects.

Rana says the funds provided by the USAID were used to establish two local community ecotourism enterprise groups, train the local communities in tourism-related activities and rescue of stranded dolphins, establish tourist information centre at the site, provide utensils to serve locally cooked food to visitors, supply tents to locals free of cost or for renting out to visitors and upgrade and beautify boats. Eighty per cent of the proceeds coming from tourists will go to the community and the remaining 20 per cent will be deposited in a common fund meant for dolphin conservation and other community development-related activities.

It is estimated that there are around 1400 blind dolphins remaining in Pakistan. The largest population of approximately 700 exists in the Sindh province between the Sukkur Barrage and the Guddu Barrage. Smaller populations of 465 and 96 are found further upstream between Guddu and Taunsa and Taunsa and Chashma. Historically, this blind dolphin existed from the Indus estuary up into the foothills of the Himalayas, however, since the construction of the Indus irrigation system, the dolphins have declined dramatically. Now they remain only in short stretches of the main Indus River in small populations, which have been separated by impassable irrigation weirs or barrages across the Indus River.

The best time to visit the place is between October and March as the weather is good. One can join the dolphin watching trips offered by STFP and avail the package deals offered by the foundation or reach the place directly to indulge in selective activities. A package deal may cost between Rs3,500 to Rs4,000 per person per day from Lahore and Islamabad and may include round-trip travel, food, camping, boat safari, bird watching and other services. A person directly reaching the spot can bargain with the boat owners and may enjoy a two to three hour boat ride/dolphin watching for something between Rs600 to Rs800. Similarly, tents for overnight camping can be hired for Rs300 to Rs400 per person. In order to promote this ecotourism programme, the project has also launched a website which provides latest update on various activities and events.

JavedIqbal, 26, is a resident of BastiAllahwali and the contact person at the tourist information centre set up at the site. He tells TNS that 10 people each from the two villages on the banks of Indus have been trained as tourist guides under the project. This was imperative as the people of these villages have little opportunities to earn. Fishing is difficult due to the prevalence of contractual system in the area under which only contractors have the right to catch the fish and the locals do not, he adds. “People are very excited. They did not know that Bulhan could bring prosperity to their houses. They took it for granted and did not know it was just one of the four types of dolphins that lived in riverwater,” he adds.

Uzma Noreen, Coordinator, WWF’s Indus River Dolphin Conservation Project, believes entrusting the local community is perhaps the best way to safeguard the Indus River Dolphin. She adds the WWF experts engaged by STFP have trained locals on how to rescue dolphins who are trapped in fishing nets or drifted into canals etc. It is a very sensitive animal and may even have a heart attack when under stress, she says. Therefore,“it is necessary to take extreme care while conducting a dolphin rescue”.

But, what if the dolphins do not rise above surface, would the effort and money spent on the trip go waste? No, because a dolphin has to resurface after every two to three minutes to breathe from the hole on its head. It does sleep but it cannot sleep for a long time. It has to be conscious to breathe. This means it cannot go into a deep sleep, as it would suffocate. So, dolphins take short sleeps of a few seconds called micro sleeps. These micro sleeps are collectively of about eight hours a day.

Though the Punjab government and the Tourism Development Corporation Punjab (TDCP) have not been there as partners, their role is highly important in the promotion of the initiative. They have been requested to introduce the project to people which they will hopefully soon do, says Rana, who has written a letter to TDCP in this regard. He says they are planning to include Taunsa Barrage to stay in the popular Multan, Uch Sharif, Cholistan tourist packages availed by tourists every year.

Security no doubt is important but this aspect will hopefully be taken care of shortly, he says, adding the riverine police force set up by the government will start guarding Indus soon.