River sharks have typically received far less attention in both research and conservation than their counterparts, whether marine sharks or river dolphins. Although critically endangered and in need of much more support, the Ganges dolphin has still received greater conservation efforts than its fellow resident, the Ganges shark, Glyphis gangeticus.
This shark is endemic to the area and found throughout the Hooghly-Ganges river system in India and Pakistan. As river sharks are so poorly studied, very little is known about their population and life history. They are believed to live their whole lives in fresh water, and bear live young. They can grow up to 5.8m, and are identifiable by their second dorsal fin.
The Ganges shark is categorised as critically endangered by the IUCN, and its population is decreasing. They are threatened by a host of human activities, from fishing and pollution to habitat degradation through the extensive building of dams. This shark is extremely rare, and its continued existence is evidenced mostly by jaws of specimens that are found in the international shark trade, rather than by direct sightings.
Although protected from fishing by the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India, 1972, as with much fisheries policy, there are serious issues with enforcing this. Ganges sharks are targeted for their fins and jaws, which are internationally sought, as well as for meat and oil that is used locally.
Over 400 million people live in the Ganges river basin, making it the most heavily populated in the world. The river itself is extremely polluted with urban sewage, industrial waste, litter, and even corpses. This poses a very real threat to all species that use the river, including the people who live on its banks. There have been many attempts to clean up the Ganges, all of which have been largely unsuccessful. This is because of the sheer scale of the task, little understanding of how to manage such a huge river system, problems with corruption, and even a lack of support from religious authorities, with many other complexities playing their parts.
Dams, barrages, and irrigation projects along the length of the Ganges have severe impacts on water flow, sediments, and water quality. These rapid changes are a serious burden to large, long-lived species that are slow to adapt, such as the Ganges shark.
Furthermore, education is an issue, as the Ganges shark has a man-eating reputation in India that is likely unwarranted, most probably the result of confusion with far more common and aggressive bull sharks. This is a species that would greatly benefit from a public awareness initiative to reduce fear and increase understanding of how unique it is, and how urgently it needs to be protected.
The entire Ganges ecosystem requires far better management for both wildlife protection and human health. Perhaps it is time for a focused campaign to save the Ganges shark, so that it can join the river dolphin as an ambassador for their home before it’s too late.
An article by Hayley McLennon