Are Hong Kong’s Pink Dolphins In Danger?

Hong Kong's native population of pink dolphins are losing habitat as the city expands further into the sea.

In a picture taken on August 19, 2011, a Chinese white dolphin or Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, nicknamed the pink dolphin, swims in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. A Hong Kong conservation group said on January 14, 2012 it has set up a DNA bank for the rare Chinese white dolphin, also known as the pink dolphin, in a bid to save the mammals facing a sharp population decline.  AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SORABJI (Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)
In a picture taken on August 19, 2011, a Chinese white dolphin or Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, nicknamed the pink dolphin, swims in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. A Hong Kong conservation group said on January 14, 2012 it has set up a DNA bank for the rare Chinese white dolphin, also known as the pink dolphin, in a bid to save the mammals facing a sharp population decline. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SORABJI (Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)
In a picture taken on August 19, 2011, a Chinese white dolphin or Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, nicknamed the pink dolphin, swims in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. A Hong Kong conservation group said on January 14, 2012 it has set up a DNA bank for the rare Chinese white dolphin, also known as the pink dolphin, in a bid to save the mammals facing a sharp population decline. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SORABJI (Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chinese white dolphin holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Hong Kong.

The dolphins are playful: It’s not uncommon for locals to see them leaping above the water, or trailing behind fishing boats, scooping up any fish that slide off the deck. They’re decorative: despite the name, the subpopulation of white dolphins that live off the coast of Hong Kong are actually pink – a consequence of a unique property of their blood vessels. The city is so proud of its iconic animal that it named the dolphin the official mascot of the ceremonies that marked Hong Kong’s handoff to China in 1997. But centuries of coexistence between the marine mammal and its human neighbors may be soon coming to an end.

Hong Kong’s population of white dolphins has always existed in a delicate balance with the megacity, and now, activists in China are warning that a suite of coming construction projects in Hong Kong waters may push the local population of white dolphins from in danger to extinct. The Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society has blamed the dwindling number of dolphins on construction projects that extend the urban landscape into the sea and help connect Hong Kong to mainland China’s burgeoning coastal cities.

The Chinese white dolphin holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Hong Kong.

The dolphins are playful: It’s not uncommon for locals to see them leaping above the water, or trailing behind fishing boats, scooping up any fish that slide off the deck. They’re decorative: despite the name, the subpopulation of white dolphins that live off the coast of Hong Kong are actually pink – a consequence of a unique property of their blood vessels. The city is so proud of its iconic animal that it named the dolphin the official mascot of the ceremonies that marked Hong Kong’s handoff to China in 1997. But centuries of coexistence between the marine mammal and its human neighbors may be soon coming to an end.

Hong Kong’s population of white dolphins has always existed in a delicate balance with the megacity, and now, activists in China are warning that a suite of coming construction projects in Hong Kong waters may push the local population of white dolphins from in danger to extinct. The Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society has blamed the dwindling number of dolphins on construction projects that extend the urban landscape into the sea and help connect Hong Kong to mainland China’s burgeoning coastal cities.

The species are listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but the threat of extinction to the white dolphin subpopulation in Hong Kong is especially dire. Although it’s estimated that some 2,500 members roam the Pearl River estuary in southern China’s Guangdong province, just a few hundred reside in Hong Kong’s waters. The Hong Kong government confirmed their numbers fell from 158 in 2003 to just 61 in 2014, and the decline may only accelerate, according to local activists.

The Conservation Society has singled out a massive bridge project as one of the major habitat threats. The 21-mile-long bridge will link Hong Kong to Macau and the city of Zhuhai, but it will also displace local dolphins. The bridge, the largest of its kind, will go “right through the heart of the dolphin population,” as the Society’s chairman, Samuel Hung, put it to CNN. Its construction will pollute the sea with noise, interfering with the ultrasonic sound waves that dolphins rely on for navigation and communication with kin.

But the Society is also alarmed at plans to add a third runway to the Hong Kong International Airport, which would involve constructing seawalls and dumping tons of sand to convert 2.5 miles of seawater into land. The project is set to begin in 2016 and finish in 2023. Samuel Hung, chairman of the Conservation Society, told the Asahi Shimbun that if the government reclaimed the land for the runway, it could kill off the local Hong Kong population of white dolphins entirely.

The Chinese government has demonstrated a distinct propensity for reclaiming vast swaths of the ocean, often in the name of staking its claim to various disputed rocks in the East and South China Seas. But the activists in Hong Kong may have an easier time advancing their cause than say, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who called China’s aggressive land reclamation in the South China Sea “out of step” with international norms.

Despite denying accusations that construction projects are to blame for the dolphins’ plight, the Hong Kong government has responded to public pressure. The government has suggested creating a dolphin sanctuary with strict regulations on fishing and economic activity to compensate for the loss of habitat caused by the runway addition.

DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon

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