Some good news as global experts discuss plight of Asia's freshwater dolphins
But WWF has been working to conserve them for years, playing a critical part in helping to increase numbers of the Indus River dolphin in Pakistan, create new breeding populations of the Yangtze finless porpoise in China, reverse the decline of the Irrawaddy dolphin population in the Mekong, and protect critical habitats for the Ganges dolphin.
And now WWF experts will be highlighting the plight of these species and the urgent steps needed to protect them at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee meeting in Slovenia from May 9th-20th – the first time that these species have been on the official agenda for 17 years.
“This is a huge opportunity to shine a global spotlight on Asia’s threatened freshwater dolphins and agree on concrete actions to save them,” said Aimee Leslie, WWF Global Cetacean Expert. “The IWC has played a pivotal role in conserving the world’s whales and its support will significantly boost efforts to protect the few thousand freshwater dolphins left on the continent.”
“The perilous state of these species highlights the need for continued international attention on these less well known riverine species. The IWC’s engagement is key and cause for cheer," added Leslie.
And there are other glimmers of hope.
WWF-Pakistan has just completed the fourth census of the Indus River dolphin as part of a project funded by the IWC and initial figures indicate that there are now at least 1800-1900 animals in the three most populated sections of the river – a 50 per cent increase since the first comprehensive count back in 2001.
“These preliminary results prove that the Indus River dolphin is slowly recovering as well as showing what can be achieved when government, communities and conservationists work together,” said Hamera Aisha, WWF-Pakistan Conservation Manager, who took part in the census and will be presenting a paper at the IWC meeting.
“But the Indus River dolphin still faces a host of threats from habitat loss to stranding in irrigation canals and entanglement in fishing nets. Firm backing from the IWC will strengthen conservation efforts and ensure that these recent population increases are not reversed,” added Aisha.
But the picture is not so positive elsewhere in Asia.
The Irrawaddy dolphin population in the Mekong River has shrunk to around 80 individuals in Cambodia, although its decline appears to be slowing with a significant number of young dolphins being sighted last year – and just 3 in Laos, where WWF believes the species is now ‘functionally extinct’.
“Construction of the controversial Don Sahong dam has destroyed any chance of the species surviving in Laos: the last three dolphins should be relocated to join the remaining dolphins in Cambodia,” said Somany Phay, WWF Greater Mekong, who will be presenting two papers on the dolphins in the Mekong to the IWC scientific committee.
Relocation is a critical component of efforts by the Chinese government to save the endangered Yangtze finless porpoise, which currently numbers around 1000 animals. By creating new breeding populations in safer habitats, the the government and scientists – with support from WWF – hope to secure the future of the species, whose numbers in the main polluted, ship-filled, over-exploited main river continue to plummet.
The fourth Asian species is the Ganges dolphin. Now numbering less than 2000 animals, it also faces a huge struggle to survive in one of the most polluted and populated rivers in the world.
“Ten years ago, the baiji dolphin vanished from the Yangtze. All four of Asia’s surviving freshwater dolphin species could follow unless conservation efforts are ramped up along the Indus, Ganges, Mekong and Yangtze – rivers that provide livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people and help power some of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies,” said Leslie.
“Local conservation efforts have helped to save these species but only a more concerted, comprehensive approach can secure their long term survival: the IWC can help make this a reality.”