NARORA, India (Reuters Life!) - As the sun sets over a serene stretch of the mighty Ganges, a pair of smooth, grey dolphins arch gracefully out of the water, bringing hope that wildlife can again call India's great river home.
Millions of Indians along the banks of the 2,500 km (1,550 mile)-long Ganges depend on the river, but unchecked levels of agricultural, industrial and domestic waste have poured in over the past decades, threatening the wildlife.
Five kilometers upstream from Narora, a five-hour drive west of New Delhi, the 350 megawatt nuclear power station that put this sleepy town on the map looms as a reminder of India's unrelenting drive for industrialization.
In Karnabas, a small village just upstream from Narora, a local drama troupe performs for more than 150 villagers.
"Humans are polluting our river!" an actor playing a Hindu god declared, a WWF banner celebrating World Dolphin Day hanging over the makeshift stage.
"The life of our Mother Ganga is endangered! Please do something!"
Distinguishable from its ocean-going cousin by a long, pointed snout, the Ganges dolphin is one of only four freshwater species in the world. The total population across India, Nepal and Bangladesh is estimated at 2,000, down from 4,500 in 1982.
But along a northern stretch of the holy river, a Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) project is leveraging the religious importance of the Ganges for Hindus to teach villagers the virtues of conservation and protection of its sacred water. The upper stretch of the Ganges, from Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas to Ram Ghat in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, holds great religious significance for Hindus.
Locations along the river figure heavily in the Hindu holy text, the Ramayana. A bathe in the river is a rite of passage.
"The religious sensibilities of the people are interlinked with the conservation of the river," said WWF-India project leader Sandeep Behera as he stood on the river bank in the shadow of a Hindu temple, while young boys chanted hymns on a nearby pier.
"If I ask a local farmer to give up just one afternoon to learn about conservation, he will ask 'What will I eat in the evening?'," Behera said.
"Therefore, we found that religious leaders were the way to get the message across."
Vivek Kumar Mishra, a Hindu priest at the riverside Vedic school just outside Karnabas, stresses the importance of protecting the holy river in his lessons.
Local fishermen no longer hunt the dolphins for fear of reprisal from village leaders who have signed up to the WWF project, while a WWF campaign promoting natural fertilizers has dramatically reduced chemical pollution into the river.
"What they (WWF) are doing is working. It's become very clear that we need to clean the river," said Ritesh Sharma, a 26 year-old shopkeeper in Karnabas.
Dolphin numbers in the 165 km stretch upstream from Narora have almost trebled over the past 15 years, to an estimated 56 today, according to WWF-India.
There are other encouraging signs.
India's government recently recognized the Ganges River Dolphin as the country's national aquatic animal. And last week, the Ministry of Environment and Forests promised to rid the river of untreated sewage and industrial pollution by 2020.
Behera, who began conservation work in Narora as part of his PhD, understands that changing peoples' attitudes takes time.
"This is not one or two years' work," he said. "What you see happening is the result of 15 years of engagement."
Editing by Elaine Lies