Indus River Dolphin (Platanista minor)



ESA Endangered – throughout its range
MMPA Depleted – throughout its range
CITES Appendix II – throughout its range

Species Description

150-200 pounds (70-90 kg)
7-8.5 feet (2.2-2.6 m)
gray with pale white underside
about 30 years
clams, fish, and shrimp
usually found individually or in pairs, but occasionally seen in groups of 10 or more animals

Indus River dolphins, sometimes called “bhulans,” are one of two separate subspecies of South Asian river dolphins. The other recognizable geographic form or subspecies is the Ganges River dolphins (Platanista gangetica gangetica), also sometimes called “susus.” The Indus River dolphin subspecies is one of the world’s most endangered cetaceans.

Indus River dolphins are about 7-8.5 feet (2.2-2.6 m) and weigh 150-200 pounds (70-90 kg). The Indus River subspecies is considered slightly smaller than the Ganges River subspecies (Jefferson et al. 2008). Females are slightly larger than males. They have an unusual robust or chunky body with a low triangular“dorsal” fin located far (about two-thirds) down their back. They have a rounded “melon”, a very long narrow beak, extremely small eyes, and noticeable external ears. A longitudinal ridge can be found on the melon as well as from the dorsal fin to the tail. The eyes are poorly-developed (lack a crystalline eye lens) and located above the corners of the mouth (Shirihai and Jarrett 2006). These animals have a uniformly gray coloration pattern with a pale white or pinkish underside, giving a slight counter-shading effect. As this species ages and matures, the melon gradually becomes less rounded.

Indus River dolphins are usually found individually or in pairs, but have been occasionally seen in larger groups of up to 10 or more animals. Little information is available or known on the social structure of these groups.

Indus River dolphins’ swimming behavior is often described as active, yet timid and reserved. This species is frequently seen swimming on its side, especially when in captivity. When at the water’s surface, these animals can breach or just lift their heads and beaks out of the water.“Breaching” may occur as a response to threats and other disturbances (Shirihai and Jarrett 2006).

Indus River dolphins generally dive for 30-90 seconds, but are capable of holding their breath for up to several minutes. During dives they use their long beaks to probe the sediment along the bottom of the river to feed on prey such as clams, fish, and shrimp. They have 26-39 pairs of teeth in each jaw that are useful for grasping prey. The fang-like teeth in the lower jaw are comparatively longer and curved, and may interlock, overlap, and be visible outside the mouth. As these animals get older, the teeth become worn-down. Groups may coordinate their movements to cooperatively feed on prey.

Indus River dolphins become sexually mature at lengths of about 5.5 feet (1.7 m) or more, and begin breeding between 6-10 years of age. Females give birth year-round to a single calf that is about 2-3 feet (0.7-0.9 m) long. Mothers may also nurse calves for about 1 year before weaning. The estimated lifespan of this species is about 30 years.


Indus River dolphins prefer the fresh and possibly brackish, shallow (usually less than 100 feet or 30 m), murky waters of the Indus River system in Pakistan. This species may occur in the main channels of rivers and in tributaries and lakes during the flood season.


Indus River dolphins occur in the lower and middle areas of the Indus River in south-central Pakistan on the Indian subcontinent. Their current range is about 435-620 miles (700-1,000 km) along the Indus River and its tributaries. Their migrations have been linked to the monsoon. Historically, their range extended from the Indus River delta to the shallow, rocky foothills of the Himalayas (~3,400 km or 2,100 miles). The tributaries this species once occupied include: the Sutlej, Ravi, Chenab, and Jhelum Rivers (Reeves et al. 2002). Today, their distribution and range is extremely limited; it is currently just 20% of its historical extent (Shirihai and Jarrett 2006).

Population Trends

According to a 2001 survey along the river, there are about 1,000-1,200 Indus river dolphins.

For management purposes, there are five sub-populations (three meta-populations) of Indus River dolphins inhabiting the animal’s range on the river. Most of the dolphins in these sub-populations are located between the Chashma and Taunsa, Taunsa and Guddu (Punjab Province), and Guddu and Sukkur “Barrages” (Sind Province) (Reeves et al. 2002). The largest sub-population of this species can be found in south-central Pakistan between the Guddu and Sukkur Barrages, followed by those between the Taunsa and Guddu Barrages (Shirihai and Jarrett 2006; Reeves et al. 2002). Small numbers of individuals are scattered outside of these barrages.


  • incidental take as bycatch in fisheries such as gillnets and longlines
  • targeted fishing for bait, medicine, meat, and oil for consumption
  • human development and other anthropogenic impacts such as hydroelectric dams and irrigation canals (e.g., Indus Basin Irrigation System), which can
    • separate populations from one another
    • reduce and alter suitable habitat
    • entrap dolphins
  • vessel strikes
  • pollutants and other contaminants discharged into the water from agriculture, industrial, and urban use, which have led to fish kills that may deplete their prey
  • water consumption for various uses by humans in Pakistan’s arid climate

Conservation Efforts

The World Wide Fund for Nature, Pakistan Office This link is an external site. and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) This link is an external site. have developed programs to rescue trapped Indus River dolphins. Wildlife reserves were created and a hunting ban implemented along the river in Pakistan in the 1970-1980s for the protection and conservation of this species.

Regulatory Overview

This species is protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, as amended.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Platanistidae
Genus: Platanista
Species: gangetica
Subspecies: minor


  • Indus River dolphins have very small eyes that resemble pinhole openings. Some scientists believe they are functionally blind, sensing only light levels and direction.
  • They vocalize almost constantly, emitting trains of high frequency (15-150 kHz) echolocation clicks.
  • When surfacing to breathe, these dolphins make a sound similar to a sneeze.


  • Jefferson, T. A, M. A. Webber, and R. L. Pitman. (2008). Marine Mammals of the World, A Comprehensive Guide to their Identification. Amsterdam, Elsevier. p. 294-296.
  • Reeves, R. R., P. A. Folkens, et al. (2002). Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York, Alfred A. Knopf. p. 302-305.
  • Shirihai, H. and B. Jarrett (2006). Whales, Dolphins and Other Marine Mammals of the World. Princeton, Princeton University Press. p. 238-239.

    From NOAA