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October 24 is Freshwater Dolphin Day. In celebration, Earth.Org is republishing this July 16 piece. WWF-Hong Kong and its partners have released an ‘emergency action plan’ to save Chinese white dolphins in the Pearl River Delta, in what they say ‘may represent our last chance to save the species’. 

According to the group, there are about 2 000 Chinese white dolphins- also called pink dolphins for the hue they acquire as adults- left in the Pearl River Delta and the population looks to be rapidly heading below the minimum number needed to sustain it. Their numbers are declining by around 3% every year; in Hong Kong, the number has dropped by more than 80% in the past 15 years. They warn that action needs to be taken now to preserve the species’ core habitats and prevent its extinction.

The most recent government estimates indicate an average of just 32 Chinese white dolphins left in Hong Kong’s waters, a historic low, down from 188 in 2003. 

The largest dolphins measure up to 2.5 metres in length, the young about a metre, and they can weigh as much as 150kg. According to the IUCN Red List, the species are listed as ‘vulnerable’ and populations are decreasing in all its native habitats, from China and Cambodia to Malaysia and Thailand. 

You might also like: What has Happened to South Africa’s Great White Sharks?

Why are Chinese white dolphins endangered?

Coastal developments are encroaching on their feeding and breeding grounds, increased marine traffic strikes or disorients them, and pollution is poisoning them. These developments also make the animals extremely stressed, which affects their socialisation and reproductive habits. 

As part of the emergency plan, seven critical threats to the marine mammals are identified: habitat loss and degradation from development and construction, a depletion of the fish they eat from overfishing, illegal fishing and unsustainable fishing practices, underwater noise disturbance from boats, marine vessels that strike the dolphins, toxins and pollutants from industrial run-off, entanglement in sea nets and sea level rise. 

The group also proposes that 13 core protected areas be set up, stretching from the waters west of Lantau to Dongping Harbour at the western edge of the delta. They want these areas to be declared as ‘no-take’ and ‘development-free’. 

Dr Laurence McCook, WWF-Hong Kong’s head of oceans conservation, says that they’re working closely with partners and authorities in Guangdong to determine how the areas they’ve identified can be cleared of fishing and mooring.

He adds, “The Chinese white dolphin is a unique and shared heritage of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong. It would be a global tragedy to lose this iconic creature from the future of the Greater Bay Area. The governments, businesses and people of the delta region should seize this last chance to save our Chinese white dolphins.”

Otherwise, he says, extinction is not a threat, but the most likely outcome.

Featured image by: chem7

At least 100 000 people took part in a protest in Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius, three weeks after an oil spill caused by a cargo ship ramming into coral reefs and days after at least 40 dolphins and whales were found washed up dead on beaches. The protesters are demanding an investigation into the oil spill and mass dolphin die-off. 

The government has said that it will carry out autopsies of all the dolphins and whales and has set up a commission to investigate the spill. Two investigations are currently being carried out: one by the police on the crew’s responsibilities and one by a senior shipping ministry official on what happened to the ship. 

Vets have only examined two of the carcasses, which showed signs of injury but no trace of oil in their bodies, according to preliminary autopsy reports. The autopsies were carried out by the government-run Albion Fisheries Research Centre. The remaining autopsies’ results are expected in the coming days, according to the fisheries ministry. 

However, Fabiola Monty, an environmental scientist, says, “We do not trust the government and the diluted information they’ve been feeding us regarding the management and responses to the oil spill.” 

You might also like: China Issues New Sustainability Rules for its Fishing Fleet

Eco-Sud, a local environmental group, adds that civil society representatives should be present during the autopsies and that independent specialists should be called upon for second opinions.

Mauritian officials said in a press conference that many of the dead species that have been washing up on beaches are Melon-headed whales, which are found primarily in deep, tropical waters. 

A Japanese-owned ship crashed into a coral reef on July 25 and began leaking at least 1 000 tons of oil on August 6, staining a protected wetlands area and a small island that was a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Thousands of volunteers worked for days to minimise the damage to the coastline, on which Mauritius depends for much of its revenue, creating makeshift oil barriers. Environmental workers also ferried dozens of tortoises and rare plants to shore, rescuing trapped seabirds as they went. 

According to 9News, another protest is being planned on September 12 in Mahebourg, one of the coastal villages in Mauritius that has been most affected by the oil spill. 

Entrepreneurs in New Zealand have developed a promising solution to unethical practices of keeping aquatic animals in captivity by introducing a robotic dolphin that looks almost identical to its living counterparts.

Edge Innovations, a New Zealand- based company, is collaborating with American creators to develop animatronic dolphins that come close to the real deal. Capable of responding to questions, swimming for hours on end, and coming into close contact with humans- which would usually be harmful to real dolphins- the innovation offers ethical security.

The robotic dolphins, controlled by remote, might sound unappealing to skeptics. However, as marine parks around the world are facing pressure to abolish the unethical practice of featuring real whales and dolphins, animatronics provide a promising alternative. The prototype weighs more than 270 kg and is indiscernible from the real thing, the team says. A test audience had been unable to guess that the dolphin was not real.

Roger Holzberg, a designer of the life-size robot bottlenose dolphins, says, “the marine park industry has had falling revenues for over a decade due to ethical concerns and the cost of live animals, yet the public hunger to learn about and experience these animals is still as strong as ever.” Holzberg is currently working with Walt Conti, who is behind some of cinema’s most famous sea creature feature films- including Free Willy and Deep Blue Sea- to build the animals.

“We believe that it’s time to reimagine this industry and that this approach can be more humane, and more profitable at the same time,” Holzberg added.

Costing approximately NZ$40 million per dolphin, the biggest challenge is to prove to investors that the robotic sea creatures will be cheaper in the long-term than their real counterparts.

Li Wang, a business developer for Edge Innovation, said that despite costing four times more than real dolphins, they would last longer. “We have to persuade them that it is a profitable business, even more profitable than live animals,” he says, adding that the robots do not require the same expensive maintenance as real dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins, on average, live less than 20 years in captivity, but 30-50 years in the wild. This highlights not only the potential profitability of the robotic dolphins, given that animatronics will last longer than 20 years, but it also demonstrates how marine parks significantly decrease the lifespan of dolphins.

You might also like: Tiger Populations in India Have Increased More Than 30% In Four Years- Report

robotic dolphin
A prototype of Edge Innovation’s robotic dolphin (Photo by: Todd Lappin).

Before COVID-19 halted construction and development, at least 30 aquariums were being built in China, according to Li Wang, and at least one large Chinese corporation had planned to replace real dolphins with robots.

The company Red Star Macalline Group has sponsored the first phase of the robotic dolphin’s development and is considering introducing it to the Chinese market. The company stated they are planning to adopt robotic dolphins and other aquatic animals in their aquarium projects and announced a strong eagerness to distribute them across the country.

Melanie Langlotz, one of the entrepreneurs behind the project, had been commissioned to develop a digital component for aquariums but faced challenges when some companies did not want to be involved in a project that would eventually supply live animals to captivity.

A Promising Solution

Animal rights advocates welcomed the move. Elisa Allen, an animal rights activist at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that she hoped robotic animals ‘will replace real ones in marine parks worldwide’.

In their natural habitats, dolphins are able to swim over 60 kilometers a day and live in tight-knit family groups. However, in captivity, they are confined to concrete pools filled with chemically treated water and forced to entertain strangers. “In 2020, cutting-edge technology allows us to experience nature without harming it,” Allen says.

Li Wang believes that the robotic dolphin will be received well by the public. “If we think about the younger generation, they spend far more time than us playing electronic games online. We actually need to ask ourselves what is real and what is fake,” he said.

As we are spoilt for choice when it comes to entertainment and ways to captivate audiences, harming innocent animals is no longer deemed as ‘necessary’ as it used to be when the resources available today did not exist. Such a solution should trigger others to think alike and to be as innovative in offering products and services that can replace outdated, unethical ones.

Featured image by: Todd Lappin

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