Irrawaddy dolphin in murky waters

Posted: 13 January 2005

Six species of dolphins may become extinct in the next decade, scientists warn, thanks to indiscriminate fishing. And the future of one - the Irrawaddy dolphin, often referred to as the Asian 'Flipper' (its bottle-nosed cousin made famous on TV and film) - is critical. This, despite the fact that it has now been put on the official danger list. Mark Schulman reports.

The elusive Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris). Photo: WWF-Canon / Alain Compost
The elusive Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris). Photo: WWF-Canon / Alain Compost
The elusive Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris).© WWF-Canon / Alain Compost
It is the end of the monsoon season in Southeast Asia. The rains are less frequent now and the waters of the Bang Pakong River - flowing east of Bangkok into the Gulf of Thailand - are unusually calm. This makes looking for an elusive river dolphin all the easier. Within minutes of leaving the banks of the river in a small fishing vessel chartered by the local marine conservation authority, a slate-blue dorsal fin is spotted breaching the muddy-brown waters off the starboard side. A small flotilla of boats quickly converge on the site as tourists and scientists alike try to get a rare glimpse of the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), one of the world's most endangered dolphins. Today, the dolphin watchers were in for a real treat as several more were sighted during the three-hour long river ride. "I never would have thought I could see such wildlife so close to Bangkok," said an excited Thai woman who came along on the tour with her nine-year old daughter. "I never even knew there were dolphins living in these rivers." Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit the coasts, estuaries, and rivers of northern Australasia and southern Asia. They tend to prefer warm, shallow coastal waters, but some have been found to inhabit freshwater rivers as far as 1,300km from the sea in search of food and sanctuary.

Shy creature

With a characteristically rounded head, no beak, and sporting a small triangular shaped dorsal fin with a rounded tip below the centre of the back, the Irrawaddy can easily be mistaken for a beluga (toothed whale) or finless porpoise, both which share similar body shapes. Although the guide counted ten individuals on this trip, the number was likely to have been four or five. Even the experts can inadvertently double count this species of dolphin, especially as they are slow to surface and rarely let out a splash with their tails to let you know they are there. Unlike their gregarious cousins - the bottlenose dolphin - who like to follow boats and swim alongside humans, the Irrawaddy is more shy and when scared can dive underwater for up to 12 minutes. But, regardless of the exact number viewed today, there was general consensus aboard ship that just seeing one was well worth the trip. "It was indeed a rare pleasure to be able to see one up close," said Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Global Species Programme, who was in Bangkok attending a conference on international wildlife trade. "It makes discussions in a conference hall over their fate really come alive." Dwindling numbers

Although there is no total population estimate available for the species, some scientists believe Irrawaddy dolphins number fewer than 1,000 throughout their range in Southeast Asia, with about half found within Thai waters. Another 1,000 individuals are reported to live within Australia's Gulf of Carpentaria.

In Songkhla Lake, in southern Thailand, there have been only six sightings since 2001. The Mekong River population in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos number between 80-100 and in the Philippines they are down to 77 individuals. "We have seen dolphin populations falling...and if we wait for more scientific data to prove they will become extinct, we would be too late," said Suwit Khunkitti, Thailand's Environment Minister, who supports protection of his country's endangered species. Though humans pose the greatest threat to their survival, the Irrawaddy has been known to develop special relationships with fishermen along the Mekong River and Ayeyarwaddy River (formerly the Irrawaddy from which the species gets its name) in Myanmar, where they help drive fish into their nets. Sadly, their efforts have largely gone unrewarded. "The numbers are declining," said Dr Chavalit Vidthayanon, head of WWF Thailand's Marine and Freshwater Unit. "There are only about 50-100 living in this river delta." "I am quite surprised, though, that we saw so many today," he added. "It seems that they came earlier this year than usual." Irrawaddy dolphins migrate into rivers in the upper Gulf of Thailand, including the Bang Pokang, at the end of the rainy season in December to feed on schools of catfish and small crustaceans. But, it is hard to believe that anything can actually live in this river - fish and dolphin alike - as the banks of the delta are dotted with heavy industry, chemical plants, and oil refineries. Brown scum collects on the water's surface and plastic litter bobs along the waves. These polluted waters certainly are not contributing to the Irrawaddy's already precarious status. Entanglement in fishing gear is the main risk to the species. Some 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die each year as a result of becoming entangled in fishing gear. Unregulated tourism and live capture for the dolphinarium trade throughout Asia also pose a major threat to their existence.

International protection

Concern for the Irrawaddy received international attention at the recent Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which took place from 2-14 October 2004, in Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand's proposal to list the Irrawadday dolphin under Appendix I of the Convention - a listing that bans international commercial trade in species threatened with extinction - was adopted by the CITES member States. "This proposal by Thailand reflects the growing significance given to coastal conservation," said Robert Mather, WWF-Thailand's country representative. "We are encouraged by this development and believe that Thai communities will be able to actually see great economic benefit from the development of ecotourism around the Irrawaddy dolphins in the wild, rather than from live trade." But, the Irrawaddy is not yet "out of the woods" or "out of the water" as the case may be. The international decision still has to trickle down to the national level and more importantly, a grassroots effort is needed to educate local communities about the importance of protecting this unique river-dweller. "Everyone on the boat was very excited to see the Irrawaddy dolphin," said Dr Lieberman. "I hope people will have the chance to see them in the wild in the future too. With greater appreciation for this remarkable species comes greater responsibility in ensuring its long-term survival." Mark Schulman is Managing Editor at WWF International.

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