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India: Chilika Lagoon Nowhere else to go: a population of Irrawaddy dolphins under intense pressure in a semi-enclosed body of water

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History and context

Chilika lagoon is an almost entirely enclosed body of brackish water, located on the east coast of India in the state of Odisha (Formerly Orissa see map below).  It is the largest wintering ground for migratory waterfowl on the Indian sub-continent, as well as a productive nursery for many commercially important fish species.  As such, it has been recognized as a RAMSAR site since 1981.  In addition to supporting the livelihoods of nearly 200,000 fishers in 150 surrounding villages1, the lagoon is known for its natural beauty, birds and important temples in and around the lagoon.  But it is also known for its Irrawaddy dolphins – one of the only well documented populations in India.    This population was estimated to contain 95-112 individuals between 2003-20052, and population numbers appear to be more or less stable since then, although up to 7% of the population is thought to be dying each year3, mainly due to entanglement in fishing gear4. Years of study have shown that the dolphins are confined to the lagoon, with no observed movement in or out of the lagoon, and the nearest documented population of Irrawaddy species occurring over 100km northeast in the Bhadrak region5 and Bhitarkanika National Park.

Dolphin-watching began in Chilika Lagoon in 1989, steadily growing until it involved an estimated 150,000 tourists per year in 2010/11.   Tourism in and around the lagoon is organized by roughly six competing associations (with some starting and then going quickly out of business), who recruit fishermen and fishing vessels to organize trips on vessels and to take tourists to see dolphins and other tourist locations in Chilika.  These fishermen adapt their open-decked fishing skiffs for tourism purposes by rigging up tarpaulin shades.  Boat tours in the lagoon can include a variety of different components, but most include an element of dolphin watching, especially in the <50 km2 area of the outer channel of the lagoon where success rates of locating and viewing dolphins are close to 100%.3 The fees paid by tourists are as low as 2-3 USD per person6, and are divided between the boat owner (80%), sub-contracted (young) boat drivers (9%) and the association that has booked the trips (11%) (although these percentages may vary depending on the tour operator/agency).  When package tours are sold from outside the Chilika region, up to 60% of collected fees are paid to the taxi driver who transports tourists to the jetty where they embark for the boat tour.

These tours have been viewed very positively by local communities, as they also generate income for villagers via the growth of traditional eateries and small stalls selling packaged snacks and cold drinks. Involvement in the industry has generated self-esteem as exemplified by the following comment from an interview with an elder in one of the villages (cited from Sutaria, 20093): “Daughter, I have fished here in Chilika for more than 50 years now, and fishing will always be primary, but I feel I get more respect and recognition from interacting with tourists. I like this, nobody respects us as fishers.”

However, by 2009, there were concerns that the expansion of dolphin watching tourism in the area might be putting unsustainable pressure on the dolphins.  In the peak tourism months of October to January more than 2000 boat trips per month were run by only one of the two local tourism associations operating at that time3.  By 2010-2011 over 900 vessels working under four separate associations were involved7. Observations in the outer channel where dolphins were concentrated revealed a continuous stream of tourism boats throughout the day, with only a short break at lunch time (1pm-3pm). The number of boats around a group of dolphins varied from one to at least seven boats at any given time3.

Nearly 450 interviews in 51 villages surrounding the lagoon revealed that, fishermen/local villagers generally recognized engine noise, propellers and “lack of space” as major causes of disturbance and a threat to local Irrawaddy dolphins, but they also wanted dolphin watching to continue, as an important source of income for local villages.3  Indeed, a study published in 2016 estimated the total expenditure attributable to dolphins in the Chilika economy to be approximately US$1.4 million annually6.

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Regulatory measures

While interviews and direct observations caused researchers to view fisheries bycatch and restriction of habitat by fixed fishing gear as the most serious threat to the Irrawaddy dolphins in the lagoon, uncontrolled tourist boat traffic was viewed as the second most pressing threat4.  Addressing the threat of fisheries bycatch has been extremely difficult due to the importance of fishing as a main source of income for many of the surrounding villages.  Management responsibility for the area is shared involvement by many different management authorities in the area (Department of Forest and Environment, State Fisheries Department, State Tourism Department, Department of Revenue, Department of Water and Irrigation and the Chilika Development Authority).  This complicates efforts to regulate tourism activities, especially as  the State Wildlife Department, which has the mandate to protect wildlife, (Irrawaddy dolphins are listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of India 1972), has little jurisdiction over “marine/aquatic” areas unless they are designated a Protected Area /Reserve or Sanctuary. However, failure to address the direct threats of fisheries bycatch and vessel disturbance could result in the local decline and eventual disappearance of dolphins from the area, and the subsequent collapse of a tourism industry that brings US$1.4 million to the region each year.

Because the Chilika Lagoon is not (yet) designated as a protected area, it is under the jurisdiction of Revenue department. To regulate the movement of tourist boats to prevent injury to the dolphins by the boats, the Chilika Development Authority has developed a dolphin watching protocol in the form of printed leaflets that are distributed to the boat operators and tourists. A joint squad consisting of staff from Chilika Wildlife Division and Chilika Development Authority has been constituted to patrol in the dolphin watching area.

This builds on work conducted jointly by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and Chilika Development Authority  in 2005, when they carried out workshops to train boat operators in approach methods. Tour operators were taught to switch off their engines in the presence of dolphins and use long poles to slowly and unobtrusively navigate in the shallow waters around the dolphins.  Many boats were encouraged to install propeller guards on their long-tailed outboard engines.  

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Lessons learned: Strengths and weaknesses of regulatory measures over time

The trajectory of the dolphin watching industry in Chilika Lagoon presents both some positive and negative lessons and can serve as an example of how adaptive management is required to ensure sustainable dolphin tourism. A study published in 2016 used a standardized framework to assess the risk of harm, displacement or local extinction that tourism poses to cetaceans in seven whale and dolphin watching sites in Asia.  Based on data collected in 2010-2011, Chilika Lagoon ranked the highest of all seven sites, with the authors concluding that “…. current pressure is very high [ranking 5/5] and, because the industry has reached saturation, will remain very high in the future. This result, coupled with the insufficient Response, and the potentially Critically Endangered dolphin status, leads to a risk indicator of 100/125 for India”8.

The constant pressure from vessel presence presents a serious threat to the dolphins through disruption of their natural feeding and resting behavior.  Local research and conservation teams are considering new approaches that might better protect the dolphins, but now that the industry has grown to such large proportions, any proposed changes will not be easy.  Raising the prices for tours and re-structuring the business model to distribute the income more fairly to the boat drivers might allow the tourism associations to limit the number of tours they run and still make a profit, but it would also turn dolphin-watching into a more elite activity.  One suggestion includes raising prices considerably – and requiring associations to earmark a portion of their fees for conservation and education activities.  Whatever the approach – it is clear that any solutions are going to require a multi-stakeholder approach, and much negotiation to ensure that the industry is run fairly and in a manner that preserves the resource upon which it is based.

On the positive side, tourism and the dolphin watching industry have provided an alternative livelihood for many fishermen, and given them and their families a sense of pride and stewardship for their natural heritage.  The low cost of dolphin watching by global standards, makes it something that is available to a wide range of local tourists, not just wealthy foreign or Indian tourists.  This accessibility gives the industry the potential to inspire a wide range of local people to appreciate and value the dolphins.  

Tourism, and research partially driven by the tourism, have also drawn attention to the population and helped to inspire a number of conservation measures that are currently underway:

  • Recently the Chilika Development Authority cleared the area of illegal prawn aquaculture installations and illegal net fishing, promoting free movement of dolphins in the lagoon.
  • Dolphin mortality due to injury appears to have reduced in recent years, thought to be the result of better regulatory measures and awareness of boat operators.
  • At the time of writing, a proposal is under evaluation for the declaration of the area of Irrawaddy dolphin habitat in Chilika lagoon as a ‘Biodiversity Heritage Site’ under the provisions of the Biological diversity Act.
  • The Chilika Development Authority has issued a set of guidelines both for boat operators as well as tourists for safe dolphin watching.

These recent developments demonstrate the potential effectiveness of adaptive management, through which authorities and local stakeholders learn from research and respond to reduce threats to whale or dolphin populations that are targeted for tourism activities. It is hoped that all of the relevant stakeholders can collaborate to sustain the dolphin watching industry in Chilika by further developing a mutually agreeable responsible dolphin watching protocol and mechanism to effectively enforce these protocols. This will include determining, and possibly capping the carrying capacity of the tourist boats engaged in dolphin in order to make this industry sustainable. Continued scientific monitoring will also be required to assess the impacts of tourism on the Irrawaddy dolphin population in Chilika, and make further adaptations to management measures if and when required.

For more information about dolphin watching in the Chilika Lagoon, please contact:

Dipani Sutaria: ;

Coralie D’Lima : or

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Afficher / Masquer les références
  1. Nayak, P. K. & Berkes, F. Whose marginalisation? Politics around environmental injustices in India's Chilika lagoon. Local Environment 15, 553-567, doi:10.1080/13549839.2010.487527 (2010).
  2. Sutaria, D. & Marsh, H. Abundance estimates of Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika Lagoon, India, using photo-identification based mark- recapture methods. Marine Mammal Science 27, 338-348 (2011).
  3. Sutaria, D. Species conservation in a complex socio-ecological system: Irrawaddy dolphins, Orcaella brevirostris in Chilika Lagoon, India, James Cook University, (2009).
  4. Pattnaik, A. K., Sutaria, D., Khan, M. & Behera, B. P. in Status and Conservation of Freshwater populations of Irrawaddy dolphins: WCS Working Paper 31   (eds Brian. D. Smith, Robert. G. Shore, & A. Lopez)  41-52 (Wildlife Conservation Society, 2007).
  5. Sutaria, D., Bopardikar, I. & Sule, M. Irrawaddy dolphins, Orcaella brevirostris from India. Report presented to the meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission SC/67a/SM08 Rev 1 (2017).
  6. D'Lima, C., Welters, R., Hamann, M. & Marsh, H. Using regional geographic scale substitution to value coastal wildlife tourism: Implications for stakeholders, conservation and management. Ocean & Coastal Management 128, 52-60 (2016).
  7. D’Lima, C. Striking a balance between fishing, tourism and dolphin conservation at Chilika Lagoon, India, Townsville: James Cook University, (2015).
  8. Mustika, P. L. K. et al. A rapid assessment of wildlife tourism risk posed to cetaceans in Asia. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 1747-7646, doi:10.1080/09669582.2016.1257012 (2016).

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