Good news on the dolphin front

April 1, 2009

Good news on the marine front is about as rare as these days as a Grand Banks’ cod.

 So it’s nice to be able to report that scientists have discovered a bigger than expected population of one of the world’s most endangered species of marine mammals — the Irrawaddy dolphin.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society announced this week that they estimated there were nearly 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins living in freshwater regions of Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangrove forest and adjacent waters of the Bay of Bengal.

Prior to this study, the largest known populations of Irrawaddy dolphins numbered in the low hundreds or less,” WCS said in a statement.

This is the marine equivalent of discovering a thriving and previously unknown population of snow leopards or Asian cheetahs — the kind of thing that gets a conservationist’s heart racing.

 I had the great privilege of observing some wild Irrawaddy dolphins in Thailand in 2004 when I was covering a conservation conference and the scientists I was with at the time told me I was unbelievably lucky. I was led to understand then that there were only a handful of marine mammals in more trouble. 

Irrawaddy dolphins frequent large rivers, estuaries and freshwater lagoons in South and Southeast Asia. The researchers reported that the previously little-studied population in Bangladesh still faces threats such as accidental entanglement in fishing nets — a dolphin killer in many places.

Irrawaddy dolphins have also been targeted by the aquarium trade because they can live in fresh-water tanks which are less costly to operate than salt-water ones.

 The results of the study have been published in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management.

(Photo credit: An Irrawaddy dolphin is seen at Chilika Lagoon in the eastern Indian state of Orissa February 25, 2006. REUTERS/Dipani Sutaria/Handout (INDIA). )

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