Reviving the river dolphin

Anna Forslund, WWF-Sweeden Programme Officer, has joined the IUCN World Conservation Congress to showcase her work in freshwater ecosystems. She says WWF’s work in river dolphins is crucial as there are so few of the left in the wild.

Sindh Wildlife Department staff taking an Indus river dolphin (Platanista minor) for release, Pakistan Photo: © WWF-Canon / WWF-Pakistan/Uzma Khan

“The Indus river dolphin is one of the world's rarest mammals and most endangered cetaceans,” she says. “Only about 1,000 Indus river dolphins exist today and the Irrawaddy dolphin is also close to becoming extinct.”

Dam-building, entanglement in fishing nets, boat traffic, and pollution have led to drastic declines in dolphin populations over several decades. Numbers of the Indus river dolphin have dramatically declined since the construction of the irrigation system in the Indus. Most now remain in a 1,200 km stretch of the Indus River.

“We still know very little about these species, but urgent action is needed to prevent them all from dying out,” says Anna.

In addition to efforts to conserve their habitat, including addressing problems such as river pollution, WWF staff have also been involved in rescue missions when dolphins get trapped in canals.

“The dolphins get caught in nets or traps so WWF staff work with local organizations to free them and release the dolphins back into the rivers,” adds Anna.

In 2005, WWF launched a new river dolphin initiative. With 40 years of experience in cetacean conservation, WWF is working with governments, other non-governmental organizations, industry, fishermen, and local communities to reduce or eliminate the threats to river dolphins and porpoises.

River dolphins and porpoises live in some of the world's mightiest rivers, including the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, Mekong and Amazon. But these river basins are also home to more than 15 percent of the planet's population and include some of the most densely populated, and poorest, areas on Earth.

Of the seven species of dolphins worldwide, four are only found in fresh water, including the Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica), the Yangtze River Dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), the Indus River Dolphin (Platanista minor) and the Amazon Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis).

Two river dolphins and one river porpoise can be found in both marine and fresh water, including the Tucuxi, (Sotalia fluviates) in South America, and the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) and the Finless Porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) in Asia.

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