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Irrawaddy Dolphins Gain Trade Protection Under CITES; WWF Urges Countries to Stop All Live Captures

Bangkok - The international community today voted to prohibit commercial trade of critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, concluding they are so rare that any trade for aquariums and dolphinaria is a threat to the species.

Conservation of Irrawaddy dolphins is a priority for World Wildlife Fund, which praised the decision today by the member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Stopping the live capture of Irrawaddy dolphins for display in aquariums is an important step in ensuring a future for the species, according to WWF experts.

"Most legitimate zoos and aquariums already refuse to display Irrrawaddy dolphins because of their endangered status and because they don't live long in captivity, but there remains an active trade in them for dolphin shows and water parks across Asia," said Karen Steuer, WWF senior policy adviser. "With this CITES listing, we are urging member countries to prohibit any trade, even trade to aquariums that may be considered noncommercial."

The CITES decision places Irrawaddy dolphins on Appendix I, where it joins species like great apes and tigers that are so endangered that no international commercial trade is allowed. There is no recent global population estimate for Irrawaddy dolphins, but there has been a decline in numbers across their Asian range and they are likely to number fewer than 1,000.

The main threat to Irrawaddy dolphins everywhere is drowning in fishing nets. The small dolphins live in shallow waters near shore or in rivers and suffer high death rates as bycatch in fishing nets. Irrawaddy dolphins in the Philippines, for example, are down to fewer than 70 individuals and will soon disappear if nothing is done to keep them from drowning in nets.

Irrawaddy dolphins are found in small, geographically isolated populations from Australia to India to the Philippines. Their ability to live in both salt water and fresh water makes them popular with dolphin shows, where fresh water tanks are cheaper to maintain. They are also easily trained and highly charismatic, making them popular attractions.

At least 50 individuals have been caught for public display since 1974; 12 alone have been captured from Thailand since the 1980s. The country of Thailand proposed increasing trade protections, uplisting them from Appendix II to Appendix I, at the CITES meeting here this week.

"This proposal by Thailand reflects the growing significance given to coastal conservation since the government restructuring in 2002," said Robert Mather, country representative for WWF-Thailand. "We're encouraged by this development and believe that Thai communities will actually see a greater economic benefit from the development of ecotourism around Irrawaddy dolphins in the wild than from live trade."

Irrawaddy dolphins migrate into rivers in the upper gulf of Thailand at the end of the rainy season each year, offering a chance to see them upclose. In Songkhla Lake in southern Thailand, there have been only six sightings of Irrawaddy dolphins since 2001. The Mekong River population in nearby Cambodia and Laos numbers fewer than 80 and is threatened by bycatch and the recent development of unregulated gold mining activities that leach cyanide and mercury into the river.