Of Chilika, dolphins and people

It was a rainy day 12 years ago when we drove alongside fresh green paddy fields, with the smell of moist red earth and the occasional showers of Holi colours, to visit a place that would occupy my mind for the best part of the next decade. It was during that visit in 2002 to Chilika, a brackish water lagoon tucked away in southern Odisha, that I saw my first Irrawaddy dolphin—Scoopfin —with a calf. I kept my eyes on and heart with her all through the next eight years. But I wonder how she is today, how many calves has she had, which other females she is foraging with and if they are still getting enough of mullet, dogfish and popcorn fish. I wonder when and how our paths will cross again. My first visit was just by chance after all. I wonder how Chilika has changed since I left because the ecological system is dynamic and disturbed, but some interactions remain stable, maintaining the essence of Chilika.

In 1999, while working on a project on olive ridley turtles, I stayed for months on an other-worldly island I fondly call mine—a strip of land in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, several hours from a payphone, peaceful with its emptiness, its ochre sandy texture against vast grey skies and sultry green seas. The dainty oystercatchers, comic crab dances, and hundreds of olive ridleys right next to the neighbouring island with its missile testing range created a surreal atmosphere on my island home whose only source of light was the stars, the moon and the reflecting sea. It was during those days while observing the belly rubs and body rolls of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins encircling our turtle tagging boat that I first considered studying dolphin behaviour. All the more when I realised that they were amongst many ignored groups of marine species—not studied because of logistical issues, because we see them but rarely because the data from species that are cryptic hardly makes good science and so on. So, when I finally saw the Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika, I felt a rush of questions, about the nature of tribes, about the cost-benefits of individuals versus groups, about the formation and breakdown of communities and societies. Here was a population of dolphins, which according to fishers spent all its time inside the lagoon. A closed population of well-marked individuals is an absolute treasure for those who study behaviour.

A misty morning in Chilika

Irrawaddy dolphins are also special as they have adapted to freshwater systems, brackish water lagoons, estuaries and to coastal areas. In India, they are found in Chilika, in Gahirmatha and in the Sunderbans of West Bengal, and the coastal waters from Gahirmatha to West Bengal. The species is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN and is found in small pockets with a discontinuous distribution from Odisha, India to the Philippines. Five of the six partially isolated subpopulations of this species are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. The population in Chilika is the only lagoonal population that has not been assessed by the IUCN Cetacean Red List Authority. Sadly, we still do not know enough about the life history, reproductive biology, genetic viability, and survival rates of the population in Chilika to be able to do a thorough local assessment.

Chilika is the antithesis of my island in the Bay of Bengal. With an area of 800-1000 square kilometres depending on the season, it is surrounded by around 142 villages and more than 200,000 people depending on fishing and agriculture. Chilika is home to long-tailed fishing boats with engines that can reverberate through you, religious mass tourism, limitless unmanaged garbage, agricultural, domestic and aquaculture run-off, illegal shrimp aquaculture, and most importantly a high degree of inter-village conflict. I returned to Chilika in 2004 for my doctoral research with a fuzzy head full of questions, some of which were suggested, some imposed and a few which inspired me. The thesis project had finally received funding from James Cook University, Australia, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York and from Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong.

Scoop fin photographed with a young one by her side in the typical mother-calf position

After the first three months though, the journey changed even more. I realised that knowing the people of Chilika was just as important as knowing the dolphins, not just because it would provide a holistic picture for conservationists, but because the people and the dolphins were in fact inseparable. In this crowded space of dolphins and people, I had to choose between remaining an outsider and merging in to understand the social and ecological landscape on which the dolphins depended. I chose the latter and immersed myself in the local life. My desire to study Scoopfin and her calves, or M Jagger and his band of rowdy males took a back seat. I instead jumped into unchartered territories and decided to learn the discourse of political ecology—a naïve step at the time.

After finding a family in the village to live with, a stable boat driver, Jagga and local research assistants from the village, Loba and Raja, we slowly started drawing out a plan to understand the various aspects that defined the lives of the people and the dolphins. Over a period of 14 months, we divided our time between interview surveys, shore-based behavioural studies of dolphins in the presence and absence of tourism vessels and dedicated boat transects for population estimation and habitat use by dolphins.

M Jagger, a commonly sighted adult individual, probably male and part of a group of 11-13 dolphins

We photo-identified a total of 80 individual dolphins based on natural marks and cuts on their dorsal fin along with fin shape and any additional marks on the body. We estimated the population size to be about 119 individuals using less than 400 km2 of the water body. We found two core areas in the lagoon, one close to the sea mouth used by around 60% of the population and another in south-central Chilika. The dolphins spent most of their time foraging, milling (an individual, or a group searching for prey in an area with synchronised dives and slow movement but in no particular direction and minimal aerial displays) and socialising, with the predominant behaviour in the core areas being foraging and milling. Depending on prey species, the dolphins exhibited both solitary and group foraging strategies in combination with spitting, sideways flipper slaps and tail slaps. Group foraging (presumably cooperative) was seen mostly for catching schools of mullet and dogfish. Mud-plume feeding, usually solitarily along with spitting sideways was observed mainly in shallower regions of the channels for catching scat fish and small-sized prey, while kerplunking (stunning prey using the tailstock and flippers to shoal and catch the fish) with spitting was often observed in dolphins foraging in a group in deeper sections of the channels. Spitting is seen only in two species of delphinids, Irrawaddy dolphins and Belugas. It could be used to either stun prey as explained above or perhaps even as a result of suction feeding in which the dolphin spits out water after filtering in the prey. Dolphins also used shallow sloping shores and stake nets as barriers against which they drove schools of fish. All these behaviours, and new behaviours which may have developed, deserve an in-depth study from a cognitive perspective.

Spitting behaviour associated with foraging activity, exhibited only by Belugas and Irrawaddy dolphins

Our dolphins differed largely based on their individual movements and the stability of their associations with each other. The occasional entry of bull sharks or Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins into the lagoon (after a new sea mouth opened) was one of the few sources of predation on the dolphins. Prey availability would otherwise be the main driving factor for presence and movement. We found that some dolphins were rovers and most were homebodies. Quite a few of the individuals, some of whom we saw with calves did not explore more than 10 km2, while others had travelled between the outer channel and south-central sector exploring up to 200 km2, thus exploring most of the preferred habitat. We hypothesised that the mother-calf pairs stayed close to food sources (Outer channel and Palur channel) and did not venture far even though the Outer channel also brought the risk of bull sharks and larger dolphins. We also found that 14 individuals showed a higher degree of association with each other rather than with others, hypothesising that the population has a stable social structure and does not show fission-fusion (where there is breakdown and movement between groups), and the degree of aggression displayed between individuals was low compared to Bottlenose dolphins and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. We do not know if this is a species-level difference or a result of adequate space and food. The only time we perceived aggression, intense socialising with chasing and tail slaps was during mating chases, which are most common during February to April each year. The mating chases are intriguing, with a group of males chasing either one or two females, and can be risky if a young one is with the females. When the chase does not get anywhere, the males behave like a football team, forming a circle with all heads inwards, almost as if they were discussing the next strategy.

A group of dolphins forming a circle with all heads facing inwards, as if strategising the next move.

Assuming accidental mortalities in fishing gears are controlled and prey availability and habitat quality are sustained, the Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika seemed to fare better than most other wildlife, especially given that Chilika is not a protected area. But how do we ensure though that encounters with fishing nets are mitigated and that fish diversity and densities are sustained?

We hoped to find solutions from the people, on how best to protect the small population of Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika, and to be aware of all ecological or social factors that could influence these solutions. Our work took us to villages all along the periphery of this coastal lagoon.

Since we were completely new to the lagoon and its complications, each day came with information that was new, complex and surprising. We found the connection between traditional fishers and Chilika to be one of faith and that ‘Chilika Ma’ would take care of them. But shrinkage and siltation of the lagoon and reduction in fish catch had become a source of great concern. The intervention by the government to dredge a new mouth to the sea had helped villages in southern and central Chilika, but had created issues in the villages close to the sea. The three fishing associations of Chilika, once a united body, had also undergone some major changes under this pressure. Once a self-managed fishery, where the village panchayats settled fishing areas and fishing seasons, it had now become one of the most conflict-torn fisheries in the region. This was largely assumed to be due to the shift in ownership of Chilika from its people to the administration, and the advent of unsustainable shrimp aquaculture amongst agriculturists or nontraditional fishers via the World Bank and later by the locals themselves. It is not possible to remove a source of income, however destructive, once it has yielded great profits. So while the ecosystem of Chilika was undergoing drastic environmental changes, over-fishing and drop in fish catch, a greater turmoil was playing out in the social landscape. I cannot pretend that none of this affected me. Trying to maintain an academic stance was not always easy and I wondered if it was even necessary if one wanted to grow personally and professionally. It took a while, but remaining aware of the people and the politics, we started looking at how both people of Chilika perceived dolphins amidst all the chaos.

Dolphin-watching boats and fishing boats in the Outer channel of Chilika

Traditional fishers believed that as long as there were dolphins in Chilika, their well-being and their fisheries would sustain. Our analysis showed that positive perceptions towards dolphins were strongest in people who were most exposed to dolphins during their daily life, that is people living and fishing in the vicinity of dolphin hotspots, those involved in dolphin-watching tourism or those who owned engine boats. We expected age to play a major role in influencing perception, but our sample size was not strong enough to prove or disprove the point. Very interestingly, dolphinwatching tourism grew during the times when fish catch from the lagoon was the lowest. The dolphins that once used to hang around fishers while they were fixing their stake nets soon became an alternate source of livelihood for fishers, buffers to absorb change when externalities had threatened fishing livelihoods, making at least a few of the communities resilient during this time of transformation. At least a few elderly fishers liked this new identity and respect they had derived from being part of the tourism industry.
Earlier, fishers saw dolphins as a blessing from God, as a symbol of ecosystem health, a sign of good fish catch. So if fishers saw dolphins in an area, they would lay out their nets there though gill nets, specially trammel nets, shark nets and hooks-and-lines are the primary cause of mortality in dolphins. And now, dolphins had become a direct source of income, however inequitable, across a range of stakeholders.

A warm sun setting on a winter evening

Studying the growth of this community-driven dolphin-watching industry in the outer channel from a few boats in the 1980s to about 350 odd boats in 2011, was at first exciting, but later bewildering. It was a self-initiated and self-managed business in the 1980s and gained support from government agencies in the 1990s. However, the system still had no way to control or limit the number of boats allowed to approach a group of dolphins, no appropriate guidelines on how to approach and show dolphins, and of course, no cap on the number of villages that could carry out this occupation. But the area they all operated in was just 35 square kilometres. The same people who fished with dolphins, who saw them as a blessing, and asked Chilika Ma (Mother Chilika) for forgiveness when a dolphin got entangled in their nets, apparently did not see what we saw as the effect of uncontrolled tourism.

During our shore-based surveys of dolphins around mechanised vessels, we had not witnessed any boat strikes on dolphins but had observed dolphins changing their behaviour and changing the direction of travel if a tourist boat came within 40-60 metres. Managing boat traffic would be of importance in keeping the dolphins healthy. So we asked all the boat drivers at the association to individually fill up questionnaires. The answers were baffling. All the boat drivers mentioned that dolphin watching stressed and disturbed the dolphins, and this affected the quality of the experience for the tourist. They were also aware of the fishing gears that were most lethal to dolphins and the gears that could lead to loss of fish diversity and abundance in Chilika. They listed solutions to all these problems, including silent engines and propeller guards. But the only aspect they could not respond to was regarding the management of the number of boats in operation at one time. While we held discussions, drew out different route plans to divert boats, and the government body held workshops for dolphin-watching guidelines, another event occurred. Two new dolphin-watching associations cropped up in adjacent villages. When I returned the following season, the original association had shut down and only one of the new ones was active. This pattern continued with the formation and breakdown of dolphin watching associations in the Outer channel of Chilika. Political conflicts over fishing rights, inter-village rivalries, personal agendas, local workings between the revenue department and the various associations were somehow limiting the growth of the industry. I felt some guilt, but mostly relief over these events, and realised that organisational theory and political ecology had much to offer to our understanding of these situations.

I am not so sure how long this resilience displayed by the people and the dolphins will last. But I have learnt not to worry from Bhalu, a 12-year-old boy then, who had held my hand and walked me home on a bad day. Another 13-year-old boy, a football enthusiast who used to take care of his grandparents, used to row me from one island to another in his dug-out canoe. On the way, he used to call out to the dolphins. And every time he did, the M Jagger group would come and circle our little boat. This for me is what Chilika is all about. It is a far cry from serenity, but there are quaint moments, quiet pink sunsets, and fog-covered glassy waters at sunrise. There are dolphins that spit in your face and wiry fishers who smile back at the camera. Amongst all the chaos of those years in Chilika, I actually did find my island of forty-four sunsets. As Exupéry might say, it is hidden, and it is small, and the dolphins that sleep by it, they keep me humble.

Photographs: Dipani Sutaria

This article is from issue


2014 Jun