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  National Geographic 21 Apr 06
China Plans Sanctuary for Rare White Dolphins
Sean Markey for National Geographic News

In an effort to protect its rare white dolphins, the government of China plans to create a dolphin reserve in the Pearl River Delta. The official Xinhua news agency said construction of the sanctuary, to measure 178 square miles (460 square kilometers), will begin later this year near Qi'ao Island. Initial efforts will focus on an emergency dolphin rescue center.

Lindsay Porter, a dolphin expert with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Hong Kong, and a marine mammal biologist who has studied white dolphins since 1993, said water pollution poses the greatest threat to the white dolphins, a highly endangered species unique to China.

"They live in one of the busiest, fastest developing deltas within Asia," Porter said. "A lot of the industrial and domestic development that occurs there has uncontrolled or unmitigated pollution coming into those waters."

Premature deaths of white dolphins, which normally live up to 40 years, have been tied to pollutants, boating collisions, and even cholera. So great has been the threat from these hazards that only about 2,000 of the dolphins, also known as pink dolphins, are thought to inhabit the South China Sea. About half of these dolphins live in the Pearl River Estuary.

Dolphin Deaths

The Xinhua news agency quoted Chen Jialin, administrator of the Chinese White Dolphin Natural Reserve. "Pollutants discharged into the water by paper mills, chemical plants, and plating factories along the river [have] been destroying the dolphins' habitat," he said, "and as a result, 19 dolphins have died over the past three years."

Porter, of WWF Hong Kong, said word of the new dolphin reserve suggests the Chinese government aims to upgrade the marine mammals' protected status in the Pearl River Delta. "There already exists a marine protected area designated in the Pearl River Estuary, which comes under jurisdiction of mainland authorities," she said. "I believe this area is about to be upgraded to 'national status,' which gives mainland authorities more resources and power to develop and enforce regulations."

Existing laws in Hong Kong and mainland China make it illegal to harvest, disturb, or harass white dolphins, Porter said. Dolphin habitat areas are also protected.

But those statutory safeguards have done little to shield the shallow-water mammals from significant and harmful effects of water pollution, she added. The Pearl River drains an area containing one-eighth of mainland China's population. It spills agricultural runoff, industrial chemicals, and other pollutants into the muddy estuary favored by the dolphins.

Coastal cities add to the problem, dumping factory and household waste into the waterway. Hong Kong alone is said in recent years to have dumped some 120 million gallons (450,000 cubic meters) of semi-processed sewage a day into its harbors. The effluent could fill 200 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Bubble-Gum Pink

Despite their name, white dolphins--as they are known locally in Hong Kong and mainland China--appear bubble-gum pink. They belong to the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) species, which inhabits waters spanning western Africa, India, and Australia.

Along the West African coast, the dolphins appear black and sport large, namesake humps. In Indian waters the marine mammals display spotted skin and grow smaller humps. In Australia the animals are gray.

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