Threats To River Dolphins
Why are river dolphins in so much trouble?
River dolphins are particularly vulnerable because not only are they restricted to fresh water, they are found in naturally low population numbers and are extremely vulnerable to direct threats related to human activity and to the many stresses placed on rivers. Their river homes are relatively small and restricted and are being destroyed by people.
The expansion and intensification of human activities in the Amazon region is threatening river dolphins and their habitat. Rivers are being degraded by agrochemicals, mining and industrial effluents, deforestation and hydroelectric developments. These man made activities are reducing both the range and health of river dolphin populations. Reports indicate that the Amazon river dolphin is retreating from the upper western reaches of its distribution, probably as a result of increasingly dense human settlement in the Andean region and the ensuing over exploitation of natural resources, such as timber and fish.
Fisheries pose the most immediate and serious threat to the Amazon river dolphins. Over the past few decades, the spread of commercial fishing operations in the Amazon combined with new technologies such as nylon gillnets have resulted in a major amplification of fishing effort and as a result, the accidental mortality (bycatch) of river dolphins and other endangered wildlife, such as Amazon manatees, entangled in fishing nets is common and widespread. More alarmingly still, some fisheries (mainly in Brazil and Peru) necessitate the deliberate hunting of Amazon river dolphins, so that their carcasses can be use das bait for edible (and commercially available) fish (mota fish). This practice appears to be becoming more widespread and is a serious threat to the future of Amazon river dolphins.
Amazon river dolphins are also injured and killed by fishermen because they are perceived negatively as an animal that interferes with and damages fishing nets and competes for dwindling fish supplies in the rivers and lakes.Traditionally, cultural beliefs in the Amazon have afforded the Amazon river dolphin some protection against hunting and people do not eat river dolphin meat. However, in many regions, the dolphins have been regarded with ambivalence and even fear as an animal with supernatural powers and this may heighten the conflict with fishermen.
Dolphins,particularly calves, can become entangled in monofilament fishing nets now widely used in the Amazon. If they are not released quickly theywill drown. Of course if a fisherman is close by when a dolphin is caught in a net, the dolphin is vulnerable to capture and sale for captive purposes, or a trophy animal for a high profile public figure.
Although on paper Amazon river dolphins appear to be protected by various laws and regulations, the problem is that legislation is poorly complied with and rarely enforced. More often than not, communities living in the Amazon are unaware of protective measures for river dolphins and other wildlife. River dolphins are being displaced from prime habitats in the rivers and lakes by a range of disturbances, from uncontrolled boat traffic to deliberate instances of hunting and capture. Theseriver dolphins and their counterparts in Asia are most definitely introuble and need help if they are survive into the future.
What is WDCS doing to help river dolphins?
For some 20 years, WDCS has continuously supported river dolphin conservation projects and initiatives run by local people in their own countries in South America and Asia. Following the catastrophic extinction of the baiji, WDCS is redoubling efforts to prevent the world's surviving river dolphins following the baiji down the road to extinction.
In 2008, WDCS supported an important South American regional river dolphin workshop which took place in Bolivia. The workshop brought together conservation biologists, educators, researchers and some policy makers working on river dolphin issues from all range states. The workshop has resulted in a regional action plan for river dolphin conservation. Follow up work is now being done to develop national river dolphin action plans for each country, to express in more detail actions and measures needed to protect river dolphins locally.
WDCS is currently working with a number of non-governmental groups (NGOs) and conservation biologists in South America and funding river dolphin conservation programmes in Colombia (Fundacion Natütama and Fundacion Omacha); and Bolivia. WDCS is also contributing to an important initiative in Ecuadorian Amazon on the Napo River.
In Asia we are currently putting together a conservation action plan following the success of the initiative in South America. This will highlight some important conservation priority actions which WDCS will seek to work with Asian groups and individuals to implement. The most pressing requirement is capacity building in Asia so that we can support local people in their efforts to secure a future for these endangered dolphins.