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Dolphins in danger: Development, pollution, threaten pink denizens of the waters around Hong Kong

Monday, August 27, 2001

By Margaret Wong, The Associated Press

HONG KONG -- The boat loaded with dozens of noisy students moved slowly along one of the busiest stretches of Hong Kong's waters, between the northern edge of the airport and the mouth of the Pearl River.

It took the experienced eye of Ken Ching, program director of Eco Tour, to catch the first glimpse of the pink fin, gliding through the white-capped waves.

"It's at 4 o'clock," Ching said.

Suddenly, a Chinese white dolphin stuck its head out of the water, quickly looking around before vanishing back into the sea. The brief appearance was enough to silence the students who worry they may be among the last people to get to see the pink mammals in Hong Kong.

"They are going to become extinct very soon," 17-year-old Catherine Fong said.

A Chinese white dolphin breaches the surface in the waters around Hong Kong. The white in the name is actually a misnomer. The dolphins are born gray and then turn pink as they mature. (Vincent Yu, AP photo)

The dolphins are under threat from Hong Kong's bustling development, and although the government has taken measures to protect them, environmentalists worry it's going to be too little, too late.

"The government's effort is like putting the dolphins in a nicely decorated house which is already on fire," said To Kwong-biu, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Fishery Alliance.

The endangered Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins are known locally as Chinese white dolphins, or in mainland China as "giant pandas at sea." They are found in shallow, coastal waters of the western Pacific and Indian oceans, from southern China and northern Australia to South Africa.

There are worries that the local population, estimated at between several hundred and 1,000, could go the way of the same species in the Philippines, where the last sightings were reported in the 1950s in areas now heavily polluted by mine tailings.

"Only old people seem to remember anything about them," said Trixie Concepcion, coordinator of the dolphin monitoring program in the Earth Island Institute in the Philippines.

The dolphins living around China's Pearl River Estuary have a unique color -- dark gray at birth but fading to pink in later life as the dolphin's blood gets near its body surface, said Dick Choi, senior marine conservation officer of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which is working to save the dolphins.

The government estimates about 1,000 of the dolphins live in the area and says 240 have been identified from photographs. Environmentalists fear the real number is between 140 and 180 and gradually declining as fewer dolphins survive long enough to mate and reproduce.

The shrinking population finds itself increasingly vulnerable to threats in the environment or disease outbreaks, said Lindsay Porter, dolphin conservation officer of World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong.

"Unless we really do care for the dolphins in a far more comprehensive manner than we are now, there is a possibility that we would lose them," Porter said.

Environmentalists say that oil spills, toxic dumping, dredging for more development and slightly treated effluent pose threats that the dolphins may not be able to overcome.

Choi said some environmentalists may be overstating such concerns.

"We shouldn't be too pessimistic," he said. "Hong Kong and the central Chinese government are very concerned about the dolphins' survival. We are paid for this job, and that's our duty, to try our best to protect the dolphins."

Chinese white dolphins were first recorded in the Pearl River area in 1757.

No scientific study or active protection had been done until the early 1990s, when the government started building Hong Kong's new airport on land reclaimed from part of the dolphins' habitat.

Among the projects that environmentalists say threatens the dolphins include a Disneyland theme park, being built for $3.55 billion on reclaimed land in outlying Lantau Island.

But the government notes that the dolphins now are protected in a marine park near the islands of Sha Chau and Lung Kwu Chau, about 4 miles northwest of the airport. Trawlers, with nets that can entangle the dolphins, are banned from the area.

Officials have built artificial reefs, hoping to replenish the food available for the dolphins in the heavily fished waters around Hong Kong.

Two more marine parks are expected to be set up next year, extending the dolphins' protected habitats, said Edward Wong, senior marine park officer with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

The Drainage Services Department said it is upgrading old sewers and plans to disinfect all effluent going into Hong Kong's waters.

Choi said a balance must be struck between businesses and dolphin protection. One pit used for toxic dumping, for example, had been operated for a long time before anybody worried about the impact on the dolphins.

"We cannot just ask them to stop operating instantly -- it's unreasonable," Choi said. "All we can do is to suggest that the operators find a new site away from dolphins' habitat when the pit reaches its full capacity in 2007."

Retired fisherman Cheung Kam-sing, who steered the boat on the students' recent dolphin-spotting trip, said for years the dolphins have followed trawlers, feeding on fish that escaped from the nets.

Fishermen believe that catching or killing the dolphins brings bad luck, so they traditionally have left them alone. But Cheung says as the years have passed, fewer and fewer dolphins are seen following the fishing boats.

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