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Freshwater dolphin species and facts

Learn more about the charismatic animals swimming in rivers around the world.

Amazon river dolphin 7.25.2012 circle and hero xl 257657

Swimming through fresh waters in parts of South America and Asia is what one might consider an unexpected figure: the dolphin. It joins the ranks of the shark and the sea turtle as some of the oldest creatures on Earth. And while they're most commonly associated with oceans, dolphins—and porpoises—can actually be found in several major rivers on two continents.

River dolphins act as indicators of river health in the basins where they live. If the dolphin population in a given body of fresh water is thriving, then the overall state of that fresh water system is also likely flourishing. But if that population is on the decline, then it’s considered a red flag for the ecosystem as a whole.

WWF is working with countries with river dolphins to change policies and practices to address direct threats to the species such as bycatch and infrastructure, to protect habitats, and to bolster scientific research.

Here’s a look at river dolphins around the world, the challenges they face, and what WWF is doing to keep them around for the long haul.    

 

Amazon River Dolphin

Amazon River Dolphin

Inia geoffrensis

Population

Unknown, but likely in tens of thousands

Status

Vulnerable

Also known as the boto or ‘pink river dolphin,’ the Amazon River dolphin swims throughout much of the famed South American river basin and the neighboring Orinoco river basin that stretches through Colombia and Venezuela. The species is characterized by its long snout and pale pink color.

Threats

Like its relatives elsewhere, the Amazon River dolphin faces challenges from development projects. Dam construction fragments populations and limits the species’ range and ability to breed. Pollution, including mercury, also impacts these dolphins. They’re also often deliberately killed for use as bait in the mota catfish fishery, which gathers fish that demand high prices in cities. 

What WWF is doing

WWF is using quadcopter drones to track and count Amazon River dolphins—a method that’s swifter and potentially more accurate than traditional monitoring by humans. We’re also developing a joint regional approach among Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil to protect the species across borders.

Spotlight: Amazon River

The Amazon River basin covers about 2.7 million square miles, stretching from the Andes Mountains in Peru to the Atlantic Ocean on the northeastern coast of Brazil. More than 3,000 freshwater fish species live in the river. WWF engages local communities and partner with governments to identify solutions that bridge the needs of economic development and conservation—including providing scientific support to help find dam locations that will do the least harm to the environment.

Fishermen with harpoons search for fruit-eating fish in Brazil © Edward Parker / WWF-Canon
Amazon River from the air © Michel Roggo / WWF-Canon

Bolivian River Dolphin

Bolivian River Dolphin

Inia boliviensis 

Population

About 5,000

Status

Vulnerable (according to the Red Book of Vertebrates of Bolivia)

The Bolivian river dolphin lives in streams and lagoons in the Bolivian Amazon, and is slightly smaller than the nearby Amazon river dolphin. Rapids and waterfalls between Bolivia and Brazil keep the two species from mingling and breeding, thus forming two independent lines of genetics. They have a very flexible body that varies in color from pale gray to intense pink.

Threats

Bolivian river dolphins can become entangled in fishing nets, or killed and used for bait. They also face the threat of mercury contamination from mining. The construction of hydroelectric dams could also have a negative effect, and inadequate conservation policies put them at risk.

What WWF is doing

WWF is helping to coordinate actions to protect the Bolivian river dolphin, learn more about the species, and preserve aquatic habitats so both dolphins and humans can thrive.

Tucuxi

Tucuxi

Sotalia fluviatilis

Population

Unknown

Status

Data Deficient

The Tucuxi is the smaller, gray counterpart to the Amazon River dolphin. The freshwater species is found throughout the Amazon and Orinoco river basins, and its marine subspecies lives in estuaries and bays along coasts, stretching from Brazil to Nicaragua. The Tucuxi travels in groups and, unlike the Amazon River dolphin, jumps out of the water.

Threats

Development—such as the construction of dams—continues to challenge Tucuxi populations by fragmenting their range and limiting breeding opportunities. Scarcity of migratory fish upon which the Tucuxi feeds also poses a threat.

What WWF is doing

The primary thing we need to do for the Tucuxi is gather an accurate count of the population. WWF is using quadcopter drones to spot and count individuals in the Brazilian Amazon, beginning the process of capturing much-needed data to better determine further actions needed.

Spotlight: Orinoco River Basin

The Orinoco River flows through Colombia and Venezuela all the way out to the Atlantic Ocean. As one of the longest rivers in South America, it plays a crucial role in supporting rich plant and animal life and growing communities. But as the region develops, the challenges facing the Orinoco basin increase.

WWF, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and local partners completed a health assessment of the Orinoco River Basin, delivering a report card in 2016. The basin scored a B-, showing a basin in transition, facing real and immediate threats from land use change, loss of forest cover, and ecosystem transformation. WWF is emphasizing the need for integrated land use planning to ensure development occurs sustainably.

Orinoco river © Meridith Kohut/WWF-US
People working on Orinoco © Meridith Kohut/WWF-US

Ganges River Dolphin

Ganges River Dolphin

Platanista gangetica

Population

2,500-3,000

Status

Endangered

The Ganges river dolphin—also known as the Ganga—inhabits parts of the Ganges, Meghna, and Brahmaputra river systems in India, Nepal, and Banglades. Known locally as susu, which refers to the noise the dolphin is said to make when it breathes, this swimmer is essentially blind and can detect only the direction of light.

Threats

Living in one of the most densely populated parts of the world, the Ganges river dolphin faces threats from agriculture and industrial pollution and other human activity such as dam creation, irrigation projects and fishing. This development activity divides and isolates populations, significantly reducing its range.

What WWF is doing

We can’t protect the Ganges river dolphin without the help of local communities. That’s why WWF works with people who live along a vital stretch of dolphin habitat to use natural fertilizers, not dispose of domestic sewage in the river, reforest the river bank, and ban commercial fishing and sand mining activities We’re also working with the leather industry to reduce pollution upstream of dolphin habitat.

Indus River Dolphin

Indus River Dolphin

Platanista gangetica minor

Population

Approximately 1,800 to 1,900

Status

Endangered

Known locally as the Bhulan, the Indus River dolphin now swims in the lower parts of the Indus River in Pakistan. Another small, isolated population can be found in the Beas River in India. These dolphins rely on echolocation to navigate, communicate, and hunt prey in the muddy river waters.

Threats

Beginning in the 1930s, the construction of numerous dams and barrages led to the initial decline of the Indus River dolphin by splitting the population into small groups, degrading their habitat, and impeding migration. The dolphins sometimes get trapped in fishing nets, stranded in irrigation channels, and face the dangers of pollution, too.

What WWF is doing

While WWF works to conserve a viable population of Indus River dolphin and protect its habitat. We also take part in rescue missions when individual dolphins become trapped in irrigation canals. There’s even a river dolphin hotline in Pakistan that people can call when they see an animal in trouble.

Irrawaddy Dolphin

Irrawaddy Dolphin

Orcaella brevirostris

Population

Unknown, decreasing

Status

Critically Endangered

The Irrawaddy dolphin traverses three rivers in South and Southeast Asia: the Irrawaddy, the Mahakam, and the Mekong. Featuring a bulging forehead and short beak, this gray animal will pop its head out of the water to breathe, followed by its back; the tail is rarely seen.

Threats

Unsustainable fishing practices remain the principal threat to the Irrawaddy dolphin. The species is not directly exploited, but can accidentally end up in fishing gear intended to capture other animals. Habitat degradation and population fragmentation due to dam development also impacts the dolphins.

What WWF is doing

In addition to conducting research to learn about dolphin mortality, population, and ecology, WWF teaches local communities about dolphin and environmental conservation. We’ve developed community fishery management zones to help sustainably manage fish and prevent dolphins from accidental capture in nets and other equipment. River guards also help track the dolphins and enforce sustainable fishing practices to help the population.

Spotlight: Mekong River

The vast and essential Mekong River accounts for up to 25% of the global freshwater catch and provides livelihoods for at least 60 million people. The number of freshwater fish species—at least 1,100—is second only to the Amazon River. But as countries in the Greater Mekong region such as China, Thailand, and Cambodia continue to grow, so too do environmental challenges. Hydropower development, climate change, and habitat loss pose the greatest threats to the river. WWF is conducting an assessment of the health of the river basin to better identify conservation needs.

Fishing at dusk on the Mekong river © Michèle Dépraz / WWF-Canon
Mekong river aerial view © Adam Oswell / WWF Greater Mekong

Yangtze Finless Porpoise

Yangtze Finless Porpoise

Neophocaena asiaeorientalis

Population

1,000

Status

Critically Endangered

The Yangtze finless porpoise lives in the Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia. At one point, this porpoise shared the waters with the Baiji dolphin—a species declared functionally extinct in 2006. The Yangtze finless porpoise is known for its mischievous smile, and its intelligence level is on par with a gorilla.

Threats

Dredging, pollution, and boat strikes from shipping and transportation on the river threaten the finless porpoise. Sand mining and illegal fishing also impact the species.

What WWF is doing

In 2014, the Chinese government gave the Yangtze porpoise the strictest protections available by law. WWF works with the government to relocate porpoises to safer parts of the river where they have a better opportunity to thrive. We also help fishers along the Yangtze River find feasible alternatives for income generation. The shift in livelihood helps develop the economy, stop overfishing, and gives communities a central role in saving an iconic species.