New SSC Panel: Advising on Dolphin Research and Conservation in China’s Pearl River Estuary

A Steering Committee chaired by Randall Reeves, with Bob Brownell, Rohan Currey, Frances Gulland, Randall Wells and Wang Ding as the other members, was recently established to assist Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK) in a long-term effort to support management measures and conservation-related research for Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis), locally known as Chinese white dolphins (CWDs), in the Pearl River Estuary (PRE) and around Hong Kong. The first year of this initiative, which is founded on close collaboration among the CSG, the IUCN SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) and the Wildlife Health Specialist Group, has been funded through a grant to OPCFHK from the Hong Kong Airport Authority. To ensure transparency, relevant documentation (e.g. terms of reference, meeting agendas, reports) and updated information on activities within the program will be provided via a dedicated Special Projects page of the CSG website.

As a first step towards developing an overarching conservation framework and action plan, OPCFHK organized a Population Viability Analysis (PVA) workshop, led by Phil Miller of the CBSG, in Hong Kong from 30 March to 1 April 2016. In addition to the Steering Committee, the workshop was attended by Chinese and international scientists who have been studying the PRE CWD population, some of them for several decades – CSG members Bernd Würsig and Lindsay Porter, along with Samuel Hung, John Wang, and Leszek Karczmarski. CSG member Tom Jefferson, another PRE CWD expert, participated remotely for short periods. A workshop report that includes model specifications and initial results of the PVA is expected in September or October 2016. This will provide the basis for a CBSG-led conservation planning workshop with stakeholders, again in Hong Kong, in early 2017.

The Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin is currently red-listed as Near Threatened. The only subpopulation that has been formally assessed is in eastern Taiwan Strait (recently recognized as a subspecies, S. chinensis taiwanensis), listed as Critically Endangered. Both S. chinensis and the PRE subpopulation, along with the other three species currently recognized in the genus Sousa (S. sahulensis, S. plumbea and S. teuszii), were assessed at a CSG Red List workshop in May 2015. It is expected that the new assessments of all four Sousa species will be finalized before the end of this year but a formal Red List assessment of the PRE subpopulation is pending until the western extent of its range can be more clearly delineated. Meantime, however, it is clear that the PRE dolphins are in decline, living as they do in an environment that is being rapidly and massively degraded by myriad threats – intense vessel traffic (including high-speed ferries); commercial and recreational fishing; dredging and dumping to facilitate navigation and large-scale land ‘reclamation’; bridge and pier construction; and pollution from household, industrial and agricultural sources.

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