The world’s wildlife ignites memories of pristine ecosystems, untamed animals and unscathed landscapes in the mind of some. Yet for countries like India, wildlife is something that people live with and encounter – literally in their backyards. A significant proportion of Indian wildlife lives in areas that are dominated by humans like crop fields. The millions of people who live in proximity to this wildlife have incredible stories to share and exciting insights to pass on. Ganesh, a resident of West Bengal, is one of them and made a lasting impression on me.
Ganesh lives in a small house at the banks of the Hooghly river in a village called Katwa, which sits at the confluence of Hooghly and the river Ajay and supports a vast spectrum of biodiversity. There, Ganesh operates a small tourist guesthouse. On a typical day, he encounters birds ranging from the white osprey, perched on high branches, to the charismatic red avadavat, dancing in the thickets around his house. Golden jackals scavenging and howling in groups cloak the evenings in a mellifluous trance, while snakes of different species regularly pay him a visit.
“It is amazing how life can adapt to all kinds of conditions we throw at it,” Ganesh said to me one day while taking me through his collection of photographs, “but I do wonder for how long it can keep doing that before it breaks.”
Ganesh was born into a marginalised family. His father worked hard as a farmer on other people’s lands. His earnings were barely enough to sustain the family so Ganesh had to work from an early age on, depriving him of an education. His father often told him that the stomach is to be prioritised over the mind and that Ganesh could leave the house if he thought otherwise.
Ganesh and his father often went out to the river to fish. The meandering stretch of muddy waters surrounded by seasonally flooded grasslands was nothing short of a gold mine for fish. This was a pivotal time for Ganesh as it allowed him for the first time to see the Ganges river dolphin up close.
This endangered aquatic species occurs mainly in the rivers of Ganga and Brahmaputra in India. “This is a Jalpari (mermaid) and you should never harm it”, said Ganesh’s father during one of his fishing trips. This idea has stuck with him and manifested in the form of a catchy phrase he uses in the awareness camps he conducts around the area: “Jal ke upar Jeevan hai, Jal ke neeche Pari” (There is life above water and angels below it).
Ganesh loves to teach the secrets of the river and most of his knowledge is self-earned. As fishing became fruitful, he started saving money for his tuition. A local wildlife photographer, Tanmoy Ghosh, who was guided by Ganesh through the river picked up on his enthusiasm to study and as their friendship grew over the weeks, he offered to cover Ganesh’s educational fees. He enrolled in school and ended up graduating in 2015. Difficult times awaited him ahead, when lack of a stable income job broke him down. But as he made up his mind to leave the state, he was introduced to NEWS – a livelihood and conservation organisation based in Kolkata. Appreciating Ganesh’s talents, they decided to support him through a small salary. This was a defining moment for his life ahead.
In parallel to his study, Ganesh worked on several projects targeting endangered fauna around his homeland. His work consisting of assisting in various projects run by National Geographic, World Wildlife Fund and other organisations, gained him state-wide recognition.
“The Ganges river dolphin is an important part of the ecosystem but people don’t understand this,” he once told me, “We can breed gharials (fish-eating crocodiles) and muggers (marsh crocodiles) in captivity but breeding this dolphin is out of the question. The time to act is now!”
When he was young, Ganesh recalls, many people revered the animal and some still do. Yet some people see those dolphins as a gold mine. River dolphins are mostly covered in blubber, which is a thick layer of fat, and the oil extracted from it is remarkably adept as bait for fish. This oil sells for anywhere between ₹150-₹200 (£1.60 to £2.15) per litre with each dolphin carcass producing tens of litres of it. Locals also believe that the oil aids in treating inflammation and arthritis.
It is not just the oil, though. Every part of those dolphins can be sold, with the oil and marrow from its spine fetching the highest amount. Therefore, a dolphin carcass becomes an important possession for a marginalised fisher who earns less than ₹500 (£5.40) a day. However, the Ganges river dolphin is protected under schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act of India so anyone found in its violation is liable for punishment. Yet, an illegal market exists in the state because of several factors ranging from lack of awareness to economic volatility.
“When I was young, I witnessed targeted hunting of dolphins using sharp harpoons,” explains Ganesh, “Killing an adult could take someone an entire day. Today awareness has significantly reduced this around my area, but bycatch in fishing nets is by far the greatest threat now.”
Ganesh has made it his life’s goal to protect the dolphin and its habitat. “I can’t save the dolphins alone, but I surely can fight alone,” he says.
Ganesh often takes tourists from his guest-house to see the river on his small motorboat. Many leave fascinated by the fact that such rich biodiversity exists in a place that is nothing but a cluster of houses on Google Maps. But then again, this is the case for most of India.
His zeal has also attracted many tiny minds. Every kid in the village of Katwa knows Ganesh da (brother) as he tells them about the vivid life forms surrounding their houses. The awe and curiosity on their confused faces always make me smile.
It always brings me back to when I first met Ganesh. I told him that dolphins also fascinated me and that I wanted to study them. Two years later, I visited him again to explain my dissertation project for my Master’s degree. Armed with the knowledge from all the research papers that I could find, I thought it would make for a good conversation with Ganesh. But just like old times, he was the one doing the talking and showered me with information ranging from their social structure to their ecology, and changes in these factors over time.
His knowledge left me awestruck. It also made me think: I will be deemed a knowledgeable person on dolphin ecology once I am done with my dissertation. But Ganesh who knows infinitely more than me will continue to stay unrecognized in the larger community of researchers. But he will still do what he does best. This is the reason I took up writing his story. For several such people employed as nature-guides and field assistants exist, who will pass without recognition. The least we can do is let them be known and work towards providing them with something more than just an acknowledgement in a Thesis. For, many field projects would be impossible without the help of such people.
Ganesh is limited by resources but filled with joy, passion and reverence for nature. His story is of great inspiration and I hope it inspires others forever.