‘World’s longest river cruise’ could threaten endangered Ganges dolphin, experts say

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has officially launched the “world’s longest river cruise” from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. The luxury journey will take 51 days and travel 3,200 km, crossing 27 river systems, via Dhaka in Bangladesh to Dibrugarh in Assam.

Three floors with 18 suites, MV Ganga Vilas is the latest venture in the cruise tourism trend promoted by the government in India. Modi hailed the cruise industry on the Ganges as a “landmark moment” that will herald a new era of tourism in India.

However, environmentalists and conservationists say the increase in sea voyages could cause permanent damage to the habitat of the Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica).


MV Ganga Vilas will pass through Kaithi village, 30km from Varanasi, at the confluence of the Ganges and Gomti Rivers, where deep waters and slower currents around the junction provide a safe habitat for endangered dolphins. In October, wildlife officials spotted a calf pod and put the number of dolphins in the area at 35 to 39.

It is one of a number of marine mammal habitats protected on the cruise route, including the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in Bihar.

Platanista gangetica It is one of two freshwater dolphin species in South Asia. Platanista small or the Indus river dolphin, found in the Beas River in Pakistan and northern India. The Ganges river dolphin faces a number of threats, including water pollution, over-extraction and poaching.

“Ship cruises are a dangerous proposition in addition to all the existing risks for dolphins,” said Ravindra Kumar Sinha, whose conservation efforts led the government to designate Gangetic dolphins as a protected species in the 1990s. Due to improved water conditions and conservation initiatives, their numbers have increased in recent years to around 3,200 in the Ganges and 500 in the Brahmaputra. But Sinha fears that cruise tourism will undo those gains. He believes gangetic dolphins may follow the fate of China’s Baiji dolphins, which were declared functionally extinct in 2006 due to increased river traffic in the Yangtze. “There is no doubt that disturbances from sea voyages will severely affect noise sensitive dolphins,” he said.

Gangetic dolphins are “nearly blind” and navigate turbid waters and search for food using echolocation clicks. Jagdish Krishnaswamy, an ecohydrologist with the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Bangalore, said: “Underwater noise pollution from the increased traffic of cruise ships, cargo ships and mechanized boats interferes with echolocation clicks and complicates their existence.”

A 2019 study by Krishnaswamy and three other experts using cetacean and porpoise sensing devices to record echolocation clicks found major changes in the acoustic response of Gangetic dolphins from loud underwater noise from motorboats. Chronic noise exposure increased stress levels, which led to fatigue, and changed their foraging behavior, causing them to overfeed to compensate for the loss of energy. Disorientation from prolonged response to underwater noise also increased the risk of collision with ships and entanglement in propeller blades, resulting in injury or death.

Cruises between Varanasi and Kolkata started in 2009. But a World Bank-funded project to improve inland waterways, called the Jal Marg Vikas Project or the National Waterway-1 (NW-1) in the Ganges, is being used by the Bharatiya Janata party government. stimulating tourism and promoting the movement of cargo in an “environmentally friendly way”.

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Kashif Siddiqui, marketing manager of Antara cruises, said the MV Ganga Vilas cruise was so popular that all tickets were sold out for the next two years. “We follow all environmental precautions and government guidelines,” he said. The promotional material for the trip states: “With sustainable principles at its heart, Ganga Vilas combines pollution prevention and noise control technologies to honor the ancient rivers that flow through it.”

About 100 vessels are currently operating on the NW-1 Ganges and NW-2 Brahmaputra routes, and the government aims to increase the number by a factor of 10. Environmentalists say a development of this scale would have huge negative impacts on the river ecosystem. In 2019, a turtle wildlife sanctuary covering a 7km protected area on the Ganges in Varanasi was designated as a move to open the area to waterway development, critics say.

A dolphin resurfaces with fishing boats in the background.

An increase in motorized river traffic could prevent dolphins from using echolocation for navigation and foraging. Photo: Shutterstock

There are also fears of high vibrations and noise from dredging operations to maintain minimum depths for navigation of cruise ships on the NW-1 Ganges route.

An environmental assessment conducted by the Inland Waterways Authority of India said that behavioral changes in fish, dolphins and turtles “may not be significant” due to dredging noise, and that death is not expected as these organisms “normally move away from dredging points”. .

But Sunil Kumar Chaudhary, a member of the Bihar Province Ganga rejuvenation, conservation and management committee, said: “Unlike the ocean, the river view is limited and the dolphins do not have a large space to maneuver during dredging activity.”

Avli Verma, a researcher at the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra center in Pune, which studies water and energy policies, said the government is putting aside necessary environmental protections in favor of the “ease of doing business” approach.

“Waterways will not be sustainable in the long run if precautionary conservation principles are not implemented today. You cannot promote sea voyages as eco-tourism in Ganga while endangering the habitats and assets of the Ganga dolphins.”

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