West African Dolphins Just Got Added To Africa’s List Of Most Endangered Mammals

An Atlantic humpback dolphin mother and calf pair swim along the African coast. CREDIT: T. Collins/WCS

It’s been a mixed bag this year for the wildlife winners and losers of 2017. On the one hand, snow leopards got taken off the endangered list, kiwis have been downgraded from “endangered”, and we even managed to rediscoverfew species previously thought already extinct.

On the other hand, it’s looking like the end of the road for Asiatic cheetahs, vaquitas, and Northern right whales. Sadly it seems like the West African dolphin is in the latter group as it has just been listed as one of Africa’s rarest mammals.

The little-known Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii), which measures around 2.5 meters (8 feet), only lives along the coast of West Africa, from Western Sahara to Central Angola, and due to being very shy, rarely ventures far from shore. Unfortunately, this puts them in direct danger of human activities from fish net entanglement to being hit by boats, offshore construction as coastal towns develop, and being hunted for food.

The dolphins are identified by their characteristic hump. T. Collins/WCS

The latest assessment by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cetacean Specialist Group has upgraded the dolphin from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Our recent assessment suggests that the global population of the Atlantic humpback dolphin likely numbers fewer than 1,500 breeding adults distributed among several isolated sub-populations, most of which appear to be very small,” said Tim Collins, of WCS’s Ocean Giants Program and the Africa Coordinator of the IUCN’s Cetacean Specialist Group.

Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the many threats faced by the Atlantic humpback dolphin along its coastal range in Western Africa. CREDIT: T. Collins/WCS

This upgrade gives it the dubious honor of joining the list of Africa’s most endangered mammals, alongside the likes of black rhinos, gorillas, Rothchild’s giraffes, and African wild dogs.

For the new assessment, researchers studied populations along the 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) thought to be their range. They found most populations were small, isolated, and had much lower numbers than previously thought. They found a decline in every known group, and predict a continued decline is inevitable given the increase in threats – including increasing competition for fisheries and human population increases – in their range.

"Particularly in view of the impending extinction of the vaquita due entirely to overkill in fishing nets, we need to do a better job of not just assessing the present condition of riverine and coastal small cetaceans, but also of looking ahead and anticipating what is likely to happen to species like the Atlantic humpback dolphin unless current trends are reversed, and soon," said Randall Reeves, Chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Cetacean Specialist Group, in a statement.

The researchers are hoping the new "critically endangered" status will help bring the dolphin to people's attention, much like the iconic gorilla or black rhino, and that proactive strategies, like the introduction of specialized marine protected areas, will prevent them going the way of their doomed brethren.

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