Chinese white dolphin

Banking on DNA to save the Chinese white dolphin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


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The battle to save the endangered Chinese white dolphin received a boost yesterday with the launch of a DNA database aimed at improving long-term conservation efforts.

The genetic research project will be a collaborative effort between the Ocean Park Conservation Fund and the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou with funding from ANZ Bank.

'It's a beloved and iconic part of Hong Kong marine life and everyone - tourists, locals - wants to see the Chinese white dolphin,' Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman said.

Dubbed a 'DNA bank', the project will house the largest collection of biological samples from the dolphins and now has more than 120 samples such as skin, teeth and internal organs collected from dolphins which have been stranded on shore.

The conservation fund and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department will donate samples they have collected to the database.

Professor Wu Yuping, who will head the 19-member team, said the project was the first in China to adopt international standards such as keeping samples in strict temperature-controlled conditions.

He said the genetic diversity of the Chinese white dolphin in the Pearl River estuary was believed to be low, making the species more susceptible to diseases caused by environmental pollution. That made the database a key part of conservation efforts.

'We aim to furnish scientific reference data to help assess infrastructure projects and develop long-term conservation strategies,' Wu said.

Conservation fund chairwoman Judy Chen said the project would give scientists a 'standardised genetic analysis platform' to assess the species' chances of survival.

Some environmentalists believe the Chinese white dolphin will be further threatened by the third runway proposal as reclamation will harm dolphins living in waters at Sha Chau and Lung Kwu Chau Marine Park, off Lantau Island, near the airport.

Since 1993, the fund has spent HK$6.1 million on conservation projects for the Chinese white dolphin such as scientific research, training workshops and community education programmes.

The dolphins are mainly found in the western waters of Hong Kong. When young, they are black, turning a pinkish-grey as adolescents before changing to completely pink as adults, often with grey speckles.