As most people are aware, the past few weeks have been touch and go for an injured Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (since named “Hope”) residing in the waters off of Hong Kong Island. The dolphin was spotted with serious cuts to its tail that some thought were inhibiting its natural behaviour and were unlikely to heal without some kind of intervention. Discussions were on-going as to the best course of action to take (Hong Kong doesn’t appear to have a protocol in place to deal with marine mammal rescue – a huge oversight and something that is critically needed) but finally, after five attempts Hope was captured and given a full veterinary assessment. Sadly but not unexpectedly, his injuries were thought to be too extensive and a decision was made to euthanise him and put an end to his suffering.
No-one wanted this outcome for Hope but most importantly no-one wants this to be the outcome for the remaining 61 Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins still residing in Hong Kong waters (not to mention the finless porpoises who also call Hong Kong their home) facing the daily onslaught of human-induced threats to their health and well-being and ultimately their survival.
Lessons need to be learnt from this tragedy, the first being that the Hong Kong authorities must immediately put in place a protocol to provide effective measures when dealing with injured marine mammals. These protocols exist in countries around the world and would not be difficult to transpose to this part of the world.
Another lesson to be learnt is that the Hong Kong authorities cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to the burgeoning threats facing the dolphins in Hong Kong. In April 2008, funded by WDC and WWF Hong Kong, a group of international experts reviewed more than a decade’s research and monitoring studies, with the primary aims of clarifying the status of the dolphin population within the area and recommending strategies for future studies. The panel made 25 recommendations including research to focus on population distribution and abundance; the improvement of monitoring and research data collection; strandings programme improvements (including having the correct protocols in place) and suggestions for effective conservation measures and mechanisms but, almost seven years later and few if any of these recommendations have been acted upon by the Hong Kong Government.
The various threats i.e., construction, dredging, sewage disposal, industrial effluent discharge, shipping, reclamation, fishing, etc., have considerable potential to affect the population of dolphins through pollution, infection, lowered prey availability, intense and low noise levels, collisions, behavioural changes, disturbance, entanglement in fishing gear and habitat modification. No other small cetacean population anywhere in the world faces the multitude of threats that exist in Hong Kong and it isn’t surprising therefore that the resident dolphin population has crashed from 158 dolphins in 2003 to 62 (sadly now 61) dolphins in 2013.
If steps to protect Hong Kong’s “pink” dolphins are not taken immediately then this tragic tale of one individual dolphin will soon become common place.