1980. The Karnali river at the Chisapani Gorge. It was the first time we dolphins saw a real scientist. Our cousins in the Narayani had told us a strange human wearing glasses, a big camera and a funny hat had been giving them the eye. They said he would jump and point his camera at the smallest movement of water. But our relatives couldn't get to know him too well, because the dirty water from the beer factory and paper mill at Narayanghat forced them to move.
When he came to Chisapani Gorge inside the Bardiya National Park, our mammalian proximity sense told us he had pitched camp near a big cliff and had befriended an old fisherman. The two used to row upstream to reach the tranquil waters in the middle of the gorge. It was all very amusing for us. We jumped up for fresh air often and looked over at him, but we were too quick and he never saw us.
We liked him. We learnt that he was quite a rare specimen-a Tribhuvan University-trained zoologist honoured by over 20 international scientific organisations like the Institute of Biology UK, the Linnean Society of London, and the British Orinthological Union. After about a month, we decided to surprise him. It was a beautiful early morning. "Doctor sahib, go home. Only sanyasis wander around like this," the fisherman was telling Dr Tej Kumar Shrestha as they made their way upstream. Suddenly, one of us jumped right up in front of these two humans. The doctor almost fell off his boat with excitement. He took off his glasses and said: "I was right. There are Gangetic Dolphins (Platanista gangetica) in Nepal's rivers."
We certainly didn't mind word of our presence getting out. Over the years we had lots of visitors, but they were mostly tourists. We migrate in winter from the Karnali and Kosi, we don't spend much time in the Narayani and the Mahakali. And there are only 20 of us left in Nepal. So, very few of you will get to see us unless you approach with love and care, much like Dr Tej does.
We knew Dr Tej campaigned to create an aquatic wildlife preserve for us while everyone wanted to focus on terrestrial mammals-tigers, rhinos and elephants. We live in a complex ecological system, and though we are labelled endangered, locals still sell our meat. They call us bhagirath or sonsh, thinking that we arrived when Shiva sprouted water from his hair to create the Ganga. People hang our bones in doorways to drive away evil. Ayurvedic doctors extract oil from us for its supposed aphrodisiac, analgesic and antiseptic properties. But nobody except this doctor, who also knows all about Nepal's birds, has bothered to truly get to know us. Thank you, Dr Tej.