Tourism puts dolphins at risk in Southeast Asia

The Conversation

Dolphin- and whale-watching tourism is a booming industry worldwide, and it’s growing apace in developing parts of Asia. Many tourists flock to see spinner dolphins in Bali or Bohol; blue whales off Sri Lanka; Chinese white dolphins in Hong Kong; or Irrawaddy dolphins in great rivers like the Mekong and Ayeyarwaddy (as the Irrawaddy is now known).

This interest in seeing wildlife is a boon: it provides jobs for local people driving boats, selling souvenirs, or staffing restaurants and hotels. It also gives a growing Asian middle class the chance to get close to wildlife that many people are increasingly separated from in day-to-day life.

By providing jobs and building compassion for the species it targets, dolphin-watching tourism can thus provide an incentive to protect threatened species such as critically endangered river dolphins. But it has a cost.

Boat traffic can stress dolphins. What can seem like insignificant short-term stresses are known to have long-term costs on whole populations if they are repeated over a long time.

Tourist boats visiting dolphins several times a day can cause exactly this sort of problem, especially if they harass and chase animals. This happens in many places where regulation is absent or poorly enforced. We have seen large numbers of boats swarming groups of dolphins in many places.

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