- Author: Alison Henry
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
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.
Bolivian River Dolphin
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.
Ganges River Dolphin
Indus River Dolphin
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.