Mekong Drought, Development Threatens Asian Dolphins


2004.09.27
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An Indo-Pacific humpback (pink) dolphin in the waters near Hong Kong Photo: Hong Kong Dolphin Watch

HONG KONG—A sustained drought on Asia’s longest river, the Mekong, along with breakneck economic development in other habitats are spelling doom for the region’s unique and fragile dolphin populations.

Just days ahead of a major international meeting on wildlife in Bangkok, researchers are warning that time is running out for the Irrawaddy dolphins of the Mekong River, orcaella brevirostris .

“If effective conservation activities are not put in place in the next three to five years, the dolphin population will become extinct in the river in the next 15 years,” marine mammal researcher Isabel Beasley was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

"The dolphin population will become extinct in the river in the next 15 years."

Low water levels

Beasley said 13 dolphins were found dead this year, including some calves with deformities, in addition to 16 last year. The deaths are likely to have been caused by the lowest water levels this year on the drought-stricken river .

Thousands of Irrawaddy dolphins once made the Mekong their home, but now their habitat has narrowed to a stretch of the river from the Lao-Cambodian border to Cambodia’s northeastern Kratie Province.

The animals are connected in local stories with mermaids and with a mythical girl who jumped into the river to avoid an unwanted marriage—turning into a dolphin. But they are increasingly falling prey to drought, pollution, and injuries through fixed, or gillnet, fishing.

Catalog of gloom

Further east, Hong Kong adopted its native pink dolphin— sousa chinensis —as the unofficial mascot for the territory’s 1997 handover to Chinese rule.

But the animals have had scant government protection for all their symbolic value and remain among the world’s most endangered species, researchers say.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) began a dolphin conservation program in the early 1990s when initial findings indicated that the local dolphin population was threatened by the increasing degradation of Hong Kong’s marine habitat.

“To date, the newly initiated Pearl River Estuary photographic catalog comprises 62 individuals,” Lindsay Porter, head WWF dolphin researcher in Hong Kong, told a recent news conference.

Wildlife meeting

“The majority of dolphin sightings have occurred in Hong Kong waters and from those waters and islands adjacent to the Hong Kong-Guangdong maritime border,” Porter said.

The dolphin’s total population remains a mystery although researchers in Hong Kong say the species is mostly found in the Pearl River Delta, where it numbers between 1,300 and 1,400.

The species is protected under the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and has been placed on the body’s Appendix I, which means the dolphin is endangered and commercial trade of the animal and its body parts is prohibited.

CITES signatories are scheduled to meet from Oct. 2-14 in Bangkok.

On the Web:

Official Laos news agency (KPL) on the Mekong dolphin

Mekong dolphin researcher Isabel Beasley

Hong Kong Dolphinwatch Ltd.

Wikipedia entry on dolphins

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