Canadian DNA researchers have convinced the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to declare Taiwan’s pink dolphins a critically endangered population and add it to the 2008 Red List.
Using samples from dead animals, the DNA profiling and forensic centre at Ontario’s Trent University was able to prove that the tiny population of distinctly coloured Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins that live on the west coast of Taiwan are genetically unique.
The Red List designation will force Taiwan to consider the impacts of industrial expansion on the dolphins, also known as Matsu’s Fish or Chinese white dolphins.
IUCN, the world’s largest environmental network with more than 1,000 government and member organizations, in August petitioned Taiwan’s council of agriculture to take action to prevent the extinction of the local population.
Biologist Bradley White hopes the move will vault the pink dolphin into the international theatre of opinion as a symbol for Taiwan’s fledgling environmental movement, as China’s panda has been for the World Wildlife Fund.
“Because they are a charismatic animal and very cute, they are becoming the focus of an environmental movement,” White said.
The message the dolphins deliver is clear.
“If this animal is dying out on the coast, it indicates a low-quality environment with pollution,” he said. “They are the canary in the coal mine of Taiwan.”
Fewer than 100 of the animals are still alive off the heavily industrialized west coast of Taiwan, where shoreline land reclamation for petrochemical and manufacturing expansion has badly damaged the estuarine habitat of the dolphins, White said.
Only quick action will prevent these dolphins from going the way of the Yangtze River dolphin, which was declared effectively extinct after a six-week search late in 2006 failed to turn up a single specimen, he said.
Taiwan’s pink dolphins are related to about 1,000 Pearl River dolphins that inhabit Hong Kong harbour, but they have not interbred for hundreds of years.
“This isolated group of 60 to 100 animals are living in an area of heavy industrial growth,” White said. “But now the Taiwanese government has to take the dolphins into account in the approval of new industrial developments.”
Taiwan’s tenuous nationhood and dependence on international trade makes the government sensitive to international opinion and White hopes the IUCN designation will improve the pink dolphins’ prospects for survival.
Expanding commercial aquaculture in Taiwan has already diverted water from the estuaries where the dolphins live and the small fish that support the dolphins are being heavily fished to manufacture feed pellets for farmed fish, White explained.
With files from Reuters