by Nachiket Kelkar
I stayed the night in the tourist hut at Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary.
Although we had reached here early that day, I had just waited around from later afternoon for the boat ride in the Giruwa River that runs through the sanctuary, eager to watch gharial, muggers and river dolphins. But the wait had turned out too long, as I happened to be last in the queue. VIPs who had arrived later had jumped the queue and taken the boats.
After two hours it became clear that I would have to go boating the next morning.
The forest watchman’s son came with me and we took a jeep ride in the forest instead, carefully monitoring our trails so as not to be intercepted by that chain of white ambassadors of the D.I.G.’s convoy. An amazing sighting of hog deer made my dayand somewhat dissipated the irritation and anger at waiting for the VIPs for two wasted hours.The boatman guide met me in the night, and said, “… Let us start the boat ride at 8.00 a.m. tomorrow. I will show you a lot of dolphins.” The man was good-natured in general, but somewhat more so today, for he had received a tip of 500 bucks from the bada sahib – a small gesture from the Forest Department for the D.I.G’s visit.
The river was a splendid sight. Only Ganges river dolphins surfacing out to dive in again, would disturb the calm of the surface. Our guide stopped the boat at a distance from them, and we spent the next half hour watching the dolphins, apart from occasionally catching glimpses of gharials.
“Well, lucky for you they are here now. Otherwise we rarely spot them so much upstream of the Ghaghra barrage,” said the guide. (The barrage is an artificial barrier across the river to aid irrigation and generate electricity.)
I was puzzled by why the dolphins had travelled upstream. He replied, “The Governor visited here three days ago. We spent 10 days running around because of his visit. Cleaned the lawn, got the hedges pruned… We did not even allow tourist bookings in that time. Later we heard that the Governor was coming for two hours. He had mentioned that he was really interested in seeing dolphins.
“We requested the Ghaghra barrage authorities to halt the release of water. Dolphins usually prefer downstream, nearer the barrage than here, but as the water levels went up they come over, and here we are! It is all thanks to the Governor that you are seeing such numbers today… ”
I was listening with my mouth wide open. He continued, “That is what we have realized from our years of watching the river’s flow and her wildlife. Whenever VIPs come, we close the gates of the dam for about a week, great sightings are ensured. That is what makes this little stretch at Katerniaghat such an amazing place.” I mutely agreed.
Katerniaghat was amazing indeed, but for many other reasons too. This reason was quite disturbing, in fact shocking. Only two days ago, I had met fishermen downstream of the barrage, who complained of poor catches due to siltation, poor water availability and random stoppage of water by the authorities. And, the list went on. When I asked the guide, “Does the Governor know the reason he could see the dolphins?” he just shrugged his shoulders.
Was this in any way different from tiger watching on elephant back? There the elephants , kept the national animal cornered for long hours, as big-bucks tourism came at the cost of the very animal people come to see.
Here, the barrage authorities were holding the entire river up, and thus our National Aquatic Animal, the Ganges river dolphin. What did the VIP’s visits cost the tiger and the dolphin? What did it cost the fisher folk downstream? There lies a lot behind our simple sightings of rare animals.
Tomorrow, if dolphin tourism caught on in Katerniaghat, how long would they hold the river up? Yesterday I had waited for three hours. The fishermen have waited for ten days.
Credit: Sumithra Sankaran