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All hands on deck to save South Africa’s humpback dolphin

A recent publication from Frontiers in Marine Science brings some worrisome news to wildlife conservationists and animal lovers at large: fewer than 500 Indian Ocean humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea) are currently left in South African waters. This makes the humpback dolphin the first endangered marine mammal species in the South African aquatic environment. 

What brought the humpback dolphin to the brink of extinction? According to the SouSA Consortium, a newly established network of South African scientists and conservationists studying and attempting to save this species, there are multiple causes for the dolphins’ dire predicament. 

“Although environmental factors almost certainly play a role in the declining numbers of the species in our waters, individual threats and solutions are challenging to identify as the South African marine environment is undergoing significant changes, often as a result of human activities, such as coastal construction and pollution. There are also major changes in the distribution and availability of prey species,” explained study lead author Professor Stephanie Plön from Stellenbosch University.

“We concluded that no single cause for their rapid decline could be identified and that the cumulative effects of multiple stressors, which are difficult to pinpoint and mitigate, are impacting population numbers.”

The experts agree that regardless of the multiplicity of causes, the major culprit behind this decline in the humpback dolphin population remains easy to identify: it is none other than the human predator, whose greed seems to be unequalled in the animal kingdom. 

Operation Phakisa, an initiative aiming to stimulate economic growth in the South African marine environment, is an example of damaging human activity. The government program negatively impacts the well-being of marine flora and fauna by increasing noise levels in the oceans, introducing additional pollutants, and often leading to unintentional habitat fragmentation. 

So what is to be done to reverse such destructive trends and save the humpback dolphin? As members of the SouSA Consortium bitterly claim, science alone is not enough anymore. Much more engagement with stakeholders (including the public, the government, legislators, parastatal organizations, or educators) through increased outreach and education is urgently and desperately needed in order to save this species, as well as others that might soon become endangered too. 

“The complex factors impacting this species in South African waters are very challenging, and in order to find realistic and effective solutions going forward, we need all hands on deck!” said Professor Plön. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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