In 2013, India made headlines the world over on reports that dolphins were to be seen as ‘non-human persons’. It accompanied a ban on dolphinariums; dolphin zoos that were made controversial by the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove“.
A circular, issued by the central zoo authority, called cetaceans highly intelligent and sensitive and suggested that dolphins “should have their own specific rights and [it] is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.”
The suggestion that dolphins were ‘non-human persons’ went viral. But ethics activists who fight for this very cause will have to wait long before dolphins are accorded the same rights as human beings. In the meantime, they can celebrate that India will no longer permit such marine zoos.
The Gangetic Dolphin
The Indian Gangetic Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) may not yet have human rights, but it lives in a river that does. In 2016, a court in Uttarakhand accorded the river Ganges and its tributary Yamuna the same status as human beings. The courts drew the line because the state government had failed to keep the Ganges habitable. Decades of pollution had turned the river toxic in many places. And the Gangetic dolphin, last of an ancient family, has lost hundreds of kilometres of habitat in what was its historic home. Dams had changed the waterways – perhaps irreversibly.
Even counting the number of dolphins remaining is a difficult task in the muddy waters of the Ganges. But a team of researchers from India and Japan found an innovative solution – underwater echolocators.
The project began when a single dolphin was spotted, alone, in Orissa’s Eastern Budhabalanga River. Dolphins are highly social creatures. They travel in pods but are independent enough to leave them at will. A solitary dolphin so far from the others of its kind is an unusual sight – so it was nicknamed the ‘lonely dolphin’.
Studying this dolphin gave the scientists new insights into how it navigated. It navigated the muddy waters through echolocation – swinging a beam of sound left and right to get a sense of the river’s dimensions. The scientists brought with them a communications engineer named Junichi Kojima, who used to work with undersea cables. His fascination with dolphins began out of necessity – underwater communication with robots is done through sound waves. He realized that the same technology that picked up robot communications could also be used to study whales.
Since the river dolphin lives in overpopulated, muddy stretches of the Ganges, it is famously elusive. Acoustic observation was the only way to track their numbers and behaviour – vital information for conservation efforts. After they met a team from IIT Madras, the two decided to work together.
Today, their efforts have led to accurate estimations of the Gangetic dolphin’s population. In the stretch near Fatehpur, they counted 19 in 2016. It was an increase by seven since the previous year. Anti-river-pollution efforts by the government seem to have been paying off – other studies by the World Wildlife Fund found over a hundred dolphins in a 90 kilometre stretch of the Ganges.
The dolphins were coming back, a few years after being declared India’s national aquatic animal. Perhaps, bestowing them rights may not be such a bad idea?
The question of dolphins as people
Dolphins are the most intelligent species after human beings. They can communicate, demonstrate affection – even altruism – and have long been one of the few creatures you can genuinely share a soul to soul moment with.
They develop bonds with humans – and commit suicide when forced to separate. Both myths and real-stories exist of dolphins saving human lives and bringing them back to shore.
Treating them as human beings could be an important step for their conservation. The practice of hunting and killing them for their meat (believed to be an aphrodisiac in India) could be met with severe consequences. And it would demonstrate a greater human responsibility to the planet’s species.
Often, the fight for franchise and rights by humans themselves have been accompanied by acts of proving. Mohandas K. Gandhi felt Indians should fight in world war I to prove their loyalty to the British.
The irony is we have already made dolphins fight our wars. Combat dolphins have been put to test by many militaries. Until 1998, the United State’s largest stock of nuclear weapons was a submarine port – guarded by dolphins who were trained to seek out and tag intruders. This met with significant opposition from ethics activists.
The Soviet Union also had a military dolphin programme which they closed in the 1990s. Dolphins were trained to attack enemy frogmen – either carrying them to shore or stabbing them with harpoons. In a darker twist, it’s believed some were tied to mines in kamikaze missions against enemy ships. In 2000, Iran bought the “kamikaze dolphins” from Russia.
When Russia seized Ukraine’s naval assets and its port of Sevastapol in 2014, they also allegedly inherited the nation’s combat dolphin programme (much about this program is shrouded in secrecy). A Ukrainian military official even told the Washington Post that the dolphins would not change their allegiance easily, prompting the headline “Ukraine’s killer dolphins will never surrender”.
India, never one to be left far behind, also contemplated using dolphins as soldiers. In 2002, the Indian Navy had a proposal to train dolphins to plant mines on enemy ships – also opposed by activists. As a PETA spokesperson told the Telegraph:
All nations must reject such use of animals, whether for warfare or for chemical and biological tests…Dolphins will become victims in a war they did not choose.
While horses, elephants, and birds have been used in wars, dolphins are the one species who may actually detest the very concept of war. We owe it to their intelligence to keep them out of man’s worst invention.
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