Irrawaddy Dolphins: Freshwater Species of the Week

Photo: Irrawaddy dolphin
A rare Irrawaddy dolphin spotted in Indonesian waters. David Dove / WWF Greater Mekong


This is the first post in a new series that celebrates the extraordinary diversity of freshwater ecosystems around the world. Every Friday, we’ll present a new species, and examine what each can teach us about the importance of preserving, and in some cases restoring, freshwater habitats.

This week, we take a look at the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), a rare species of freshwater dolphin that is highly vulnerable to extinction due to pollution, dams, and diversions in the rivers it calls home.

This week, the World Wildlife Fund reported that Irrawaddy dolphins have been seen for the first time in West Kalimantan, on the Indonesian island Borneo. WWF-Indonesia and the Regional Office for Marine, Coastal & Resources Management Pontianak  (BPSPL) saw the freshwater cetaceans while conducting a study in the narrow straits and coastal waters of the Kubu Raya and Kayong Utara regencies in the western part of Borneo.

Albertus Tjiu, WWF-Indonesia’s Conservation Biologist, said, “The results of this study indicate the importance of protecting the dolphins’ habitat, from the origins of the rivers in the Heart of Borneo, to the lower rivers of the island, including waterways of Batu Ampar mangroves and nypah forests, the narrow straits and the coastal areas of Kubu Raya, West Kalimantan.”

The scientists also saw Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in the area.

Tjiu warns that the area is seeing increasing charcoal production, threatening the flooded mangrove forests that serve as key habitat to the Irrawaddy dolphin. WWF is calling on producers to avoid deforesting sensitive areas.

According to WWF, there are about 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the wild, with about 5,800 of them living in Bangladesh. The remainder are scattered throughout Southeast Asia. The species is officially listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN, although it is listed as critically endangered locally in some areas, including the Mekong River, the Ayeyawardi River, and the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan.

Intelligent and playful, river dolphins are charismatic animals. But they are unlikely to survive in large numbers unless countries get serious about protecting and restoring river habitats.


Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with NationalGeographic.com. He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, MailOnline.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.

  • Cheryl Dodd

    Watched a documentary on the Amazon where rare dolphins classed us Mythical Creatures live in the Amazon River, wondering if the Santarem Factory illegally set up on the river for the questionable soya crop bean export that is not only ruining the lives of the people who live in the Amazon Forest but is also threatening the number or marine life there?

  • Florian.G

    Some dogs do not like when we approach their noses, this is a provocative gesture for him

  • glitters inflash

    Thank goodness some bloggers can still write. Thanks for this writing…

  • Arnaub

    Great work Brian ,I have also seen these lovely creatures recently in the waters of chilka in Orissa (India).

  • G. Patey

    Given all the horrible things humans have done – this Irrawaddy dolphin should not be existing. Sorry, tired of both sides of the arguement when it comes to how this planet should be managed.

  • njgbhy

    poor dolphins, they could be extinct in the next decade

  • Absolutely Eco – Friendly

    I am of the belief that any effort necessary to safe a species is worth taking it. If what it takes is to restore the rivers ecosystems we must do it and if what it takes is to protect them ,,simple lets do that, period. We must stop avoiding the job that it has to be done.

  • uwe bahr

    we man kind are the crules animal on this planet we take and take and kill every thing we have no respect for other creatures

  • Thadoe Wai

    These gentle beings of nature are just marvelous. If I may add as being a native of Myanmar, I cannot believe why, whether unintentional or deliberate, that the namesake of the dolphin, the Irrawaddy river, would be switched to the name that we call in our language (Ayeyarwaddi) as such to be different.

  • […] Geographic article on the Irrawaddy dolphin: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/02/10/irrawaddy-dolphins-freshwater-species-of-the-week… 51.500152 -0.126236 Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterRedditDiggStumbleUponPrintLike this:LikeBe the […]

  • […] mangrove forest in the world and a haven for a spectacular array of species, including the rareIrrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins and the highly endangered Bengal […]

  • […] timberland in a universe and a breakwater for a fantastic array of species, including a singular Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins and a rarely involved Bengal […]

  • […] mangrove forest in the world and a haven for a spectacular array of species, including the rare Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins and the highly endangered Bengal […]

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