Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Taipei Times White Dolphin Article - Errors & Comment

It's always good to see the plight of the Taiwan white dolphins receiving coverage in the media. Yesterday, the Taipei Times ran an article titled Taiwanese white dolphins face extinction: activists. While the article does give a brief picture of the plight of the dolphins, it unfortunately contains several errors. Regrettably, these errors seem to be made time and time again despite previous letters of correction for similar articles to the newspaper.

What follows are corrections and some comment on the Taipei Times article. The title of the article, Taiwanese white dolphins face extinction: activists is indeed correct but it should be noted that it's not just "activists" that are saying that the dolphins face extinction.

The threat of extinction to the dolphins is based on published peer reviewed scientific studies and reports. Examples of such publications are the 2004 and 2007 international workshop reports. A list of links to several published papers can be viewed here.

In the article the dolphins are referred to as Taiwan white dolphins. This is indeed one of the common English names given to the dolphins and is also a direct translation of the Hanji [Mandarin] common name. However, these dolphins are more commonly called Taiwan pink dolphins here. The article goes on to say that the dolphins are "known as Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, a species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] as 'critically endangered' in 2008; now stands at only between 60 and 90 off the west coast." This sentence is incorrect. The Taiwan white [pink] dolphins are a unique Taiwan population of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) are a species of dolphin the inhabit coastal waters from the southeast African coast through the Indian and Pacific oceans to southeast China and Taiwan and down to Australia. The species of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin is not listed as critically endangered by the IUCN but rather as near threatened. Only the unique Eastern Taiwan Strait population commonly called the Taiwan pink dolphins is listed as critically endangered.

The article quotes Gan Chen-yi (¥Ì®f©y), secretary of the Matsu's Fish Conservation Union as saying "the Taiwanese white dolphin might become extinct within 10 years if industrial development near the estuary of the Jhuoshuei River is not halted." This looks to be almost certainly a case of something being lost in translation. The use of the word "might" undermines the seriousness of the situation. The IUCN has seen fit place these dolphins on the critically endangered list; just one step away from extinction. These dolphins will certainly become functionally extinct within the next decade unless aggressive measures are taken to save them.

The article is also misleading in claiming that it was previously believed that there were "approximately 200 of the mammals about 3km to 5km off the west coast between Miaoli and Tainan counties between 2004 and 2006" and that the "number had fallen to no more than 100 by 2007, indicating that various industrial and harbor development projects along the western coastline have seriously polluted the dolphin's natural habitat."

The unique population of Taiwan pink dolphin was only discovered in 2002. Researchers began studying them and based on the limited data available from the initial research done, best estimates were that the population could total a maximum of 200 individuals. However, as more data was collected estimates could be refined and it became clear that the population totals less than a hundred individuals at best and in all likelihood is around 70 individuals. The estimate range is between 60-90 animals. A number of clear threats to the dolphins were identified and the results of these threats to date are almost certainly why the population is in such trouble. The major threats to the dolphins are:
- by-catch in fishing gear;
- reclamation of estuarine and coastal regions for industrial purposes;
- diversion and extraction of freshwater from major river systems of western Taiwan;
- release of industrial, agricultural and municipal effluent into rivers and coastal waters;
- noise and disturbance associated with construction, shipping and military activities.

It should be noted that the information given on the life cycle of the dolphins is largely based on general research of the species and may not necessarily fit the unique population of Taiwan pink dolphins. From observations of a known female member of the Taiwan population, her reproduction rate showed a five year period between calves. Data appears to indicate that reproduction amongst the Taiwan pink dolphins is extremely slow and limited. A sure indication that this population is unable to sustain itself and is firmly on the path to extinction unless aggressive measures are taken to allow the population to try and recover.

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