ASIA'S first marine life conservation body has been set up to research preventative medicine and captive breeding for dolphins, whales and other marine animals. In announcing the establishment of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, chairman Stephen Leatherwood said Hong Kong's endemic population of humpbacked dolphins (referred to as the Chinese white dolphin) would be a priority concern. The organisation will have $2.5 million to start and Mr Leatherwood said he would gather funds and expertise from around the world to investigate ways to protect the declining population from extinction. ''The situation is very bad, perhaps it's too late, but we can only try,'' said Mr Leatherwood, who is also chairman of the World Conservation Union's whale and dolphin specialist group. ''There are 12 places for the Conservation Board which are not yet filled. I intend to find the best scientists from anywhere in the world to work for me on commission,'' he said. The other major area of research will be the baiji, or Yangtze dolphin, which is the most endangered species in the world. The baiji's population has recently plummeted from 600 in the early 1970s to perhaps 200 or fewer today. ''Nowhere do we face greater challenges than here in East Asia. The land and waters have been in continuous use for thousands of years,'' Mr Leatherwood said. ''The disappearance of the baiji would serve dramatic notice that the rivers in which these dolphins once lived are so badly deteriorated that they will no longer be productive or safe for human use.'' He said that, whether or not the efforts to save the baiji and white dolphin were successful, it would focus world attention on Asia's need for clean waters. The foundation will be based at Hong Kong's Ocean Park and begin a five-year action plan which will target 14 areas throughout Asia. Initially, the projects will cover the baiji, the white dolphin, the susu of India, the finless porpoise and the bhulan of Pakistan. ''I'm sure we'll get a lot of financial support from environmentally minded people in Hong Kong,'' he said. The foundation is part of a $200 million maintenance project at Ocean Park, which will include installing a $140 million breeding pool by 1995. Meanwhile, the Government has given the go-ahead for a $2 million project by Swire Marine Laboratory of Hong Kong University to study the Chinese white dolphin and recommend ways of protecting it in Hong Kong waters. Agriculture and Fisheries Department senior conservation officer Lay Chik-chuen said the government funding would be split between two UK researchers under Professor Brian Morton of the laboratory. Both researchers had previous experience, he said. The two post-graduate projects aim to count the dolphins, assess their behaviour and the effect of development, particularly in northern Lantau because of the airport works, and suggest ways to protect them, perhaps including the setting-up of a sanctuary. Mr Lay said he hoped the project could start in the next couple of weeks, and results might tie in with the department's aim to put forward legislation next year to create marine parks.