Three new wildlife sanctuaries for Ganges River and Irrawaddy dolphins declared by the Government of Bangladesh

The Government of Bangladesh recently declared three new wildlife sanctuaries for endangered freshwater dolphins in the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem – the Sundarbans. The sanctuaries, which were officially declared on January 29, will protect two species of freshwater dolphins: the Ganges River dolphin and the Irrawaddy dolphin. Although there is no global population estimate for either species, both have disappeared from major portions of their range. However, both species occur in the Sundarbans in sufficient numbers that it may serve as a global safety net for preventing their extinction.  The three wildlife sanctuaries safeguard 19.4 mi (31.4 km) of channels with a total area of 4.1 sq mi (10.7 sq km).  The locations and sizes of the sanctuaries in the Sundarbans were determined according to a study conducted by WCS and the Bangladesh Forest Department and published in the journal Oryx in 2010. The study found that the habitat of Ganges River and Irrawaddy dolphins were clumped in waterways where human activities are most intense.

The dolphins are threatened by fatal entanglements in fishing gear, depletion of their prey from the enormous by-catch of fish and crustaceans in fine-mesh “mosquito” nets used to catch fry for shrimp farming, and increasing salinity and sedimentation caused by sea-level rise and changes in the availability of freshwater river flow.  It is hoped that the new wildlife sanctuaries in the Sundarbans will also provide protection for other threatened aquatic wildlife including the river terrapin, masked finfoot, and small-clawed otter.

CSG Chair Randall R. Reeves awarded Citation of Excellence

Dr Randall R. Reeves, Chair of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group, has been awarded the Species Survival Commission Chair’s Citation of Excellence. The award was given in recognition of his leadership of whale and dolphin conservation worldwide and his exceptional service as Chair of the SSC Cetacean Specialist Group over many years. The award was presented by Simon Stuart Chair of the Species Survival Commission at Meeting of SSC Chairs held in Abu Dhabi, February 2012. Randall Reeves has been the Chair of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group since 1997 and was Deputy Chair from 1992-1997.

Update on Mekong River Dolphins in Cambodia

An international team of scientists, including several from the CSG, spent the week of 9-13 January 2012 in Cambodia working with Cambodian counterparts on efforts to refine understanding of the status of dolphins in the Mekong River (Orcaella brevirostris), determine cause(s) of the exceptionally high calf mortality documented in recent years, and improve protection measures (especially pertaining to bycatch in gillnets). This was a follow-up to an earlier meeting in October 2009 (see previous report on this website under Special Projects: Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins).

A recent publication led by Gerry Ryan of the WWF-Cambodia dolphin project had estimated current abundance of this relict population as only 85 (95% CI= 77.9-91.2) based on a novel mark-resight estimation method (Ryan et al. 2011). Perhaps more importantly, Ryan and his co-authors estimated seniority at 0.999 (0.028 SE), recruitment at 0.001, and population growth rate at 0.978, concluding: “Although the population size appears to be stable, we believe this represents the slow disappearance of a long-lived animal with no recruitment.”

A key finding by the visiting scientific team (which included veterinarians Frances Gulland, Thijs Kuiken, Antonio Fernández, and Paul Jepson) was that there is no evidence to support the idea that a disease process is involved in the high incidence of calf deaths. Nor is there any support for the view that this population is suffering significantly from contaminant exposure or inbreeding. Entanglement in fishing gear, mainly gillnets, is unquestionably the primary cause of death for non-calves, but the primary cause(s) for the very high mortality of calves remain unknown.

By the end of a week of meetings, laboratory work, and field observations, the responsible parties in Cambodia – the Commission for Conservation and Development of Mekong River Dolphin Ecotourism Zone, the Fisheries Administration of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and WWF-Cambodia – signed a document called the Kratie Declaration on the Conservation of the Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins. The declaration commits them to work collaboratively and with a sense of urgency to address the conservation and scientific recommendations developed jointly by the international experts and the local and regional participants who attended the workshop.

The Kratie Declaration, together with its appendices which contain the findings and recommendations from the workshop, is available for download from the Downloads tab on this site or by following this link.

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