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Hong Kong's Rare Pink Dolphins Are Fighting for Survival

pink dolphin

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are only an estimated 60 pink dolphins left in Hong Kong waters, down from 158 in 2003
  • Land reclamation for a massive cross-sea bridge and proposed airport runway has disrupted the dolphins’ habitat
  • Heavy marine traffic and water pollution are further stressing the remaining dolphins

By Dr. Becker

Chinese white dolphins are, ironically, most well known for their pale pink skin, which is why they’re commonly known as pink dolphins (as well as Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins).

Chinese white dolphins have made Hong Kong waters, including the Pearl River Estuary, their home for hundreds of years. The dolphins are a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors daily to view these magnificent creatures.

This may soon change, however, as pink dolphin sightings are becoming increasingly rare. There are only an estimated 60 dolphins left in area waters, down from 158 in 2003, according to Samuel Hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. The dolphins face many threats.

They inhabit an area with heavy marine traffic and water pollution, and their relatively small area of habitat is being increasingly reclaimed. For instance, more than 1,400 hectares (3,459 acres) of sea area have been reclaimed in these western Hong Kong waters since the mid-1990s, WWF reported.1

26-Mile Cross-Sea Bridge, New Airport Terminal Cut Through Pink Dolphin Habitat

Two “massive engineering projects” are putting further stress on the already-strained pink-dolphin population around Hong Kong. First, there’s the 26-mile Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which is under construction.

The cross-sea bridge and tunnel will be the world’s longest upon completion, and it cuts right through the dolphins’ habitat.

Hong Kong also has plans to build a third runway for the busy Chek Lap Kok airport. To do so, 650 hectares (1,606 acres) of land will be reclaimed from the sea — and from the pink dolphins that currently reside there. Hung told The China Post:2

“We think that if that [runway] project goes ahead, then it will probably drive the dolphin away from Hong Kong waters …

In some ways it seems like we are pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the cliff and if we're making that final push, they will be gone forever. I think now is the time to get our act together."

Hung noted that in addition to bridge and airport projects, the dolphins are threatened by overfishing and an increase in high-speed ferry traffic.

It’s thought that some dolphin calves have also died from toxins accumulating in their mother’s milk due to polluted seawater.3 The Hong Kong government has also proposed additional land reclamation projects to add space for housing and bring down housing costs.4

A 15-square-mile marine park has been proposed to help compensate for the loss of pink dolphin habitat, but it’s not expected to be established until after the third airport runway is complete. Hung noted that the dolphins may not be able to “survive and wait.”5

Will Chinese White Dolphins Follow the Same Fate as Chinese River Dolphins?

In 2006, researchers declared the Chinese river dolphin, or baiji, extinct. The dolphins lived only in China’s Yangtze River and were dated back 20 million years. About 400 Chinese river dolphins remained in the 1980s, but their numbers shrank to less than 100 in the 1990s.

During a 2006 search of more than 2,100 miles of the river, no signs of the dolphins could be found.6 Like the Chinese white dolphin, the Chinese river dolphin lived in an extremely busy waterway with heavy ship traffic.

Ship collisions likely played a role in the dolphins’ demise, along with overfishing, dam-building and environmental degradation.7 Unless steps are taken to improve their habitat and increase protection, Chinese white dolphins may suffer the same fate.

Zeb Hogan, a researcher with the University of Nevada at Reno, told National Geographic:

“Globally, a pattern has emerged; these large aquatic animals are disappearing … The world's river dolphins and large freshwater fish face the biggest threats, including overfishing, dams, navigation projects, pollution, and habitat destruction …

The extinction of the baiji dolphin should serve as a wake-up call that more needs to be done to protect river life … Unless concrete steps are taken soon to better protect these vulnerable species, this is the beginning of a wave of extinctions that is likely to occur over the next 20 to 30 years."

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How to Get Involved to Help Save Hong Kong’s Dolphins

Chinese white dolphins are social creatures that live to be 30 to 40 years old. They typically live in small groups of four animals, and baby calves learn survival skills, in part, by playing with other members of their group.8

The animals delight onlookers not only because of their pink skin but also because of their playful leaps out of the water and “sky hopping,” which is when they stick their heads out the water in order to look around.

Future generations may be facing a world in which these intriguing creatures cease to exist. If you’d like to get involved, you can sign this petition to convince authorities to create environmental legislation that will put dolphins' lives above industrial expansion.