Why a Global Declaration for River Dolphins is so critical

Posted on October, 10 2023

A pathway to safeguarding river dolphins and enhancing the health of their rivers
River dolphins are extraordinary. They are apex predators in some of the world’s greatest river systems, and yet they are often undervalued and overlooked.

They are still holding on, even though all six species live in rivers that face a barrage of threats. But they are only just holding on; all species are classified as either Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A seventh river dolphin species, the Chinese river dolphin or baiji, was declared likely extinct in 2007. Since the 1980s, river dolphin populations have plummeted by 73%, with water infrastructure, unsustainable fishing, and pollution threatening their existence.

River dolphins are important indicators of the health of the rivers where they live; rivers that are also the lifeblood of huge economies and hundreds of millions of people. Where freshwater dolphin populations are thriving, it is likely that the overall river systems are flourishing – as well as the countless other wildlife species, communities, and companies that depend on them: for fish, for drinking and irrigation water, and for transport.

We need to act now to save these important animals.

Conservation efforts around the world have been successful in halting the decline of some river dolphin species. In China, after decades of seemingly irreversible decline, results from the latest census of critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoises shows a 23% increase in population over the past five years - the first increase since records began. In Indonesia, innovative pinger devices have successfully kept dolphins from dying due to entanglement in gill nets, while also increasing fish catches for local communities - a win-win!

But much more needs to be done. Which is why representatives from river dolphin range states will gather in Bogota, Colombia on October 24th to sign the Global Declaration for River Dolphins.

Why is the Global Declaration for River Dolphins so critical?

Working together: The main threats to river dolphin populations can only be tackled when approached at every level: governmental (legislation and its implementation), community (sustainable practices), private sector (effective stewardship), and NGOs (innovation, learning, implementation support).

Critical Research: Despite significant efforts, there are still river dolphin species for which we lack knowledge of population numbers and geographical ranges. We also need more information about fish populations, water quality, and water quantity in river dolphin rivers. Extra research will enable us to have this foundation of critical information, and to reach our full global potential for conserving river dolphins and the health of the rivers where they live.

Strengthening Protection: All river dolphin species are endangered or critically endangered, most populations are declining, and the threats they face are increasing. A solid network of well-managed protected areas can change this situation, and these can only be effective when all stakeholders join forces: governments, communities, research institutes, companies, NGOs and financiers.

We have the momentum; now we need concerted global action to save these iconic species. We need a Real Deal for River Dolphins; the signing of a Global Declaration for River Dolphins, alongside commitments to implement game-changing actions to halt the decline in river dolphin populations globally and increase numbers in the most threatened populations.

Participants at the event will include:
* Representatives of range-country governments from Asia and South America
* NGO & CSO coalition (expert NGOs, CSOs, and universities)
* UN and Convention representatives (IWC, Ramsar, IUCN, CMS)
* Funding agencies (WB, ADB, BID, GEF)
* Private sector representatives

Participants will commit to:
* Build awareness, including by supporting the annual World River Dolphin Day
* Engage with industries to tackle water quality and quantity issues
* Drive river dolphin research and threat monitoring
* Eradicate unsustainable fishing practices
* Create a network of protected river habitats
* Increase river dolphin site management effectiveness

Participants will also make commitments to implement specific and game-changing actions that progress the delivery of these pledges; actions that are to be implemented in the near term, and which will be reviewed and celebrated each year on World River Dolphin Day.

The results will be:
* Care and Conservation: Communities, governments, and businesses being custodians of the river dolphins
* Tackling Threats: Healthy rivers, fisheries practices and laws; the preservation of habitat integrity
* Better Protection: A well-managed network of protected areas for river dolphins

Through this Declaration process we will build a global movement for river dolphin appreciation and conservation; for the dolphins, for the rivers, and for the people.  Many countries already recognise the importance of river dolphins species and are stepping up efforts to conserve them – this is needed in all river dolphin range countries, alongside collaboration beyond borders to learn from each other’s experiences, exchange good practices, and provide structural support for activities on the continental and global scale.
River dolphin in Colombia (Sotalia fluviatilis)
© Fernando Trujillo / Fundación Omacjha
Pinger training for local fishers on Mahakam river in Indonesia to help save river dolphins
© yk-rasi
Amazon river dolphins
© Fernando Trujillo / Omacha Foundation
Tagging river dolphins in the Amazon
© Adriano Gambarini / WWF-Brazil
Indus river dolphin in Pakistan
© WWF-Pakistan
First satellite tagging of Indus river dolphin in Pakistan
© Janan Sindh