Historic declaration offers hope for world's endangered Dolphins

Posted on October, 24 2023

Bogota, Colombia (24 October) - After decades of seemingly irreversible decline in global river dolphin numbers, 11 Asian and South American countries today signed a landmark deal in Bogotá to save the world’s six surviving species of river dolphins from extinction.

Since the 1980s, river dolphin populations have plummeted by 73% due to a barrage of threats, including unsustainable fishing practices, hydropower dams, pollution from agriculture, industry and mining, and habitat loss. The recent deaths of over 150 river dolphins in the Amazon’s drought-ravaged Lake Tefé shows that climate change is becoming an increasingly severe threat to their survival.

Adopted by Asian and South American range states from Colombia to India, the Global Declaration for River Dolphins aims to halt the decline of all river dolphin species and increase the most vulnerable populations. It will scale up collective efforts to safeguard the remaining river dolphin species,* by developing and funding measures to eradicate gillnets, reduce pollution, expand research, and increase protected areas.

“This historic declaration creates a roadmap for the recovery of river dolphin populations across the globe - offering real hope for the survival of these iconic species despite the enormous threats they face,” said Stuart Orr, Global Freshwater Lead for WWF, which is working with partners to support the Declaration.

“But this declaration is about more than saving river dolphins: it’s also about enhancing the health of their great rivers, which are the lifeblood of so many communities and economies as well as sustaining critical ecosystems from rainforests to deltas,” added Orr.

River dolphins live in some of the world’s most important rivers, including the Amazon and Orinoco in South America, and the Ayeyarwady, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Mahakam and Yangtze in Asia. These rivers support hundreds of millions of people, from Indigenous Peoples and local communities in remote areas to the residents of megacities. These rivers water vast amounts of agricultural land, fuel industry and business, and sustain a wealth of wildlife.

While the overall global picture is bleak, conservation efforts have proven successful in halting the decline of some river dolphin species, including in some of the most densely populated river basins in the world, such as the Indus and Yangtze.

In China, the numbers of critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoises - the only freshwater porpoise in the world - have increased by 23% over the past five years. This is the first increase since records began and is a result of strict protection measures and conservation efforts. Despite this, there are still only 1,249 Yangtze finless porpoises.

The population of endangered Indus river dolphins has almost doubled over the last 20 years due to collective action by government, communities and NGOs, including WWF. However, there are still only around 2,000 Indus river dolphins and WWF is working with communities to reduce pollution, release dolphins entangled in fishing gear and rescue dolphins trapped in irrigation canals.

Meanwhile, WWF’s innovative electronic pinger project successfully prevented dolphins in the Mahakam river in Indonesia from dying due to accidental entanglement in gill nets, which had been the greatest direct threat to the last 80 dolphins in the river. The project also resulted in a 40% increase in the average catch for local fishers and no expensive dolphin damage to their nets.

The South American River Dolphin Initiative has also demonstrated the power of partnerships, by bringing organizations together to advance science, satellite tag river dolphins to discover more about their movement and behaviour, and raise awareness about the role of river dolphins - and the threats to their survival.

“Inspiring conservation efforts at local and national levels have yielded some incredible results, but progress is limited and the threats remain vast. This is why the Declaration is vital: we need collective global efforts to ensure the long term survival of all six river dolphin species,” said Daphne Willems, WWF Lead River Dolphin Rivers initiative. “And not just their survival because thriving river dolphin populations indicate healthy rivers - and those are the foundation for thriving communities.”

“The Declaration is a clear commitment from these range states to a brighter future for river dolphins, rivers and people. Together we can drive real progress and show that a nature-positive, resilient and sustainable future is possible.”

Six species of river dolphins