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Massive population of rare Irrawaddy dolphins discovered in Bangladesh

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has discovered an unknown population of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin in Bangladesh numbering 6,000 individuals. The dolphins were found in the freshwater areas of the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Prior to this discovery, the largest known populations of Irrawaddy dolphins numbered only in the hundreds.

“This discovery gives us great hope that there is a future for Irrawaddy dolphins,” said Dr. Brian Smith, the study’s lead author. “Bangladesh clearly serves as an important sanctuary for Irrawaddy dolphins, and conservation in this region should be a top priority.” The discovery of the new population was announced today at the First International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas in Maui, Hawaii.

The irrawaddy dolphin. Photo courtesy of WCS.

Threatened by fishermen’s nets and climate change, the Irrawaddy dolphins are labeled as Vulnerable in Bangladesh and India, but Critically Endangered in Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand by the IUCN Red List. The current total population of dolphins is unknown.

The study announcing the find, published in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, highlights that despite the discovery of a new population, the Irrawaddy dolphin is still threatened. Bringing this point home was the discovery of two dolphins which had drowned due to entanglement in fishermen’s nets during the survey.

Other threats to the Irrawaddy dolphin include declining freshwater due to human use and climate change, which is threatening to raise the sea-level and inundate local freshwater systems. The Ganges River dolphin, which overlaps the same habitat as the Irrawaddy dolphin, is threatened by the same factors.

Freshwater dolphins of Southeast Asia have garnered additional attention since the extinction of the baiji, or Yangzte river dolphin, which disappeared from China’s waters in 2006 despite conservation efforts. The baiji went extinct due to a large variety of threats, including dam construction on the river, entanglement in nets, habitat loss, pollution, speedboats, noise pollution, and illegal electrofishing which employs electricity to stun fish.

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