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River Dolphin Closer to Extinction Despite Reports

River Dolphin Closer to Extinction Despite Reports

Postby Cetacea » 3/22/07

River Dolphin Closer to Extinction Despite Reports, Experts Say
Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 21, 2007

An Irrawaddy dolphin (right) performs with two pink dolphins at the Oasis Sea World marine park in Chantaburi, Thailand, in 2003. The critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin may be in greater danger of extinction than ever, scientists say—and not less, as the government of Cambodia recently announced.

Photograph by Adrees Latif AL/Reuters

Asia's critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin may be in greater danger of extinction than ever, scientists say—and not less, as the government of Cambodia recently announced.

According to Touch Seang Tana, chair of Cambodia's Commission for Mekong Dolphin Conservation, there are now about 160 dolphins in the upper Mekong River, up from only 90 when the Cambodian government banned the practice of net fishing last year (see map of Cambodia).
But researchers who study the rare dolphin have expressed deep skepticism that such a dramatic turnaround could have occurred.

They said it would be biologically impossible for the dolphins to rebound so quickly, because their gestation period is 11 months and the animals generally only have one offspring every two years.

There are no dolphins from other areas that could have moved into the upper Mekong River once nets were removed, the researchers added.

"It's impossible that the dolphin population would have increased substantially in only one year," said Isabel Beasley, a Ph.D. candidate at Australia's James Cook University who researched dolphins in the Mekong River from 2001 to 2005.

"The mortality [in recent years] is too high and 95 percent of dolphins in the river already occurred in the areas where the nets were banned."

Dams and Boat Traffic

Two to three meters (seven to ten feet) long, the Irrawaddy river dolphin is similar in appearance to the better known beluga whale. Also known as the Mekong River dolphin, the Irrawaddy is found near coasts and in estuaries in parts of southeast Asia and Australia.

The Irrawaddy's three river populations are some of the most critically endangered dolphins known to exist.

As of April 2005 Irrawaddy dolphins numbered between 127 and 161 in the entire Mekong River, according to Beasley.

Smaller populations are found in Indonesia's Mahakam River and in the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar (Burma).
Two small lake-bound populations in India and southern Thailand are also known.

Dam-building, boat traffic, and pollution have negatively impacted dolphin populations over the last several decades.
"The Mekong dolphin population [has been] declining by 4.8 percent per year, with most newborns dying from unknown causes within one to two weeks of birth," Beasley said.

"The population will not increase until calf survival improves."

"Accidental catch in gill nets is the other major threat," Beasley added.

(Read related story "Gold Mining, Nets Imperil Rare Dolphin, Groups Say" [March 4, 2003].)

No Gill Nets

Net fishing was banned last year in Cambodia's upper Mekong River, where local people were encouraged to grow crops or work in the burgeoning tourism industry instead of fishing.

The absence of gill nets strung in the river has resulted in the sudden jump in dolphin numbers, Cambodian officials maintain.

"We should have about 20 new babies born every year if the current trend continues," Tana, the conservation commission chair, told Reuters news service earlier this month.

Zeb Hogan, who studies large river fish in Asia, visited the area last month and confirmed that fishers were no longer using gill nets.

"It was the first time that I had seen that in Cambodia," said Hogan, a researcher with the University of Nevada at Reno and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

"Wishful Thinking?"

In response to researchers' skepticism about his government's latest population estimates, Tana said his figures were accurate.

"Even [though] the deaths of new offspring [were] found to have increased from about ten in 2000-2001 to more than 20 in 2005-2006, the dolphin population was slightly increased," he said via email.

"And according to my observations, [the population] was about … a hundred and sixty in February 2007."

Tana also pointed out that obtaining accurate population numbers can be very difficult.

The Mekong's frequently murky waters make techniques such as photo censuses impossible, he said, and the dolphins' tendency to break off into small, mobile groups can make "confusion and mistakes unavoidable."

Ian Baird of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, has studied Mekong River dolphins since the early 1990s.

He said he "appreciates the efforts that people are making to try to help" the dolphin population, but he said major rebounds are not going to occur in just one year.

"While we would all love to report that the dolphins are rebounding, I think that it is highly likely that the opposite is actually occurring," he said. "This may well be a case of wishful thinking."

Baird said plans to build large dams on the Mekong River pose a serious threat to the future of the dolphins and fisheries.

"One large dam could lead to the end of the Mekong River dolphin," he said.

Beasley, of James Cook University, said "it is extremely detrimental to dolphin conservation efforts to indicate that the population is making a comeback when it probably isn't."

She is also concerned that encouraging local communities to diversify into ecotourism activities such as dolphin-watching may place even more harm on this critically endangered population.

"As far as I know, no studies have yet been conducted on the effect that dolphin-watching is having on the population," she said, "though I suspect that the effects are quite significant as a result of … high levels of boat activity."

National Geographic
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Postby Izzy » 3/22/07

That's sooo sad. Why do we have to lose ANOTHER species so soon after the last? It makes me so mad. There has GOT to be a way to change this.
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Postby stelzer12 » 3/22/07

That is terrible! I have never even heard of those kinds of dolphins before! It would be terrible if they went extinct. :-(
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Postby Alison » 3/22/07

Thanks so much for posting this, Cetacea - I started to last night but was way too tired to finish. It's very sad, but unfortunately not very surprising. :( Does that photo greatly disturb anyone else?
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Postby Cetacea » 3/26/07

No problem. i'm a bit distubred by the fact that they chose a picture of a performing captive Irrawaddy sitting in alone in pool with two other dolphins rather than choosing a picture of a wild one if that is what you mean. If there was at least more than one you could assume they were trying to breed but the picture is not very encouraging, every dolphin counts and this one by the looks of it is going to die alone without the oppurtunity to reproduce and potentially help it's population.

WDCS take on the situation:

Irrawaddy dolphins closer to extinction

Asia's Irrawaddy dolphin may be closer to extinction than recent figures suggest. A recent announcement from the Government of Cambodia implies that a population of the dolphins found in the upper stretches of the Mekong River is thriving, with an increase from 90 to 160 dolphins in just one year.

However conservationists remain concerned for the future of these unique river dolphins, highlighting that it would be impossible for the population to grow so quickly. Irrawaddy dolphins typically only have one offspring every two years and their gestation period is 11 months.

WDCS's Nicola Hodgins said "We welcome all efforts to protect these highly vulnerable animals, but are concerned that their situation remains critical."

Irrawaddy dolphins face a number of serious threats throughout their range, including entanglement in fishing nets, destruction of their habitat through development and dams, as well as capture for aquaria.

WDCS funds a number of projects to help protect Irrawaddy dolphins, for more information go to: http://www.wdcs.org/fieldprojects

Source: WDCS
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Postby !cetaceans! » 4/2/07

i remember they were one of the first dolphins i started learning about...I was hoping to visit the biji and irrawaddy dolphin..but i guess now it's too late....why cant humans be more considerate....

Postby David » 4/2/07

I think its name is/was baiji - see http://marinebio.org/species.asp?id=338

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Postby !cetaceans! » 4/4/07

David wrote:I think its name is/was baiji - see http://marinebio.org/species.asp?id=338

Welcome back btw


ooo ok I always mess that up.

thanks alot!

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Postby Mariniegirl » 4/6/07

This isn't fair why arent more people help out to save them?
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Postby WFMDOLPHIN » 4/12/07

Once i first heard about the Irrawaddy dolphin, i heard they use to live in very poor conditions. Nasty water. No room. Trash everywhere. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. I saw a picture of it too. It was in a magazine i've read while studying. Well anyways i thought by now people might have cleared it out. But i haven't heard of anything yet. River dolphins tend to be shy and are probably scared of people and very easy to catch. Sad but true. Irrawaddy is one of my favorite dolphins. Okay i love every one of them. But this one was i wanted to know more about. If we can clear out their area they might have a better chance of not getting stick and to produce healthy so they won't go.

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