“White Elephant” Projects are Eliminating White Dolphins

Among Hong Kong’s oldest residents are a species of Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin whose playful presence has been recorded in local waters since the early 1600s. This species, often referred to as the Chinese white dolphin, is unique in its distinctively colourful pigmentation. The origin of the rosy pink complexion is hypothesized to be either the result of an evolutionary loss of camouflage in the absence of large predators, or the presence of overdeveloped blood vessels near the surface of the skin that could change the dolphins’ hue as they thermoregulate. Chinese white dolphins can live for 40 years and have the approximate IQ of a 7-year-old child.

The first time I saw pictures of the iconic cotton candy coloured dolphins local to Hong Kong, I assumed that the images were modified. But each of these exceptionally intelligent creatures truly comes with their own distinctive pattern of pink and purple coloration. On a recent tour in the north Lantau waters, I was lucky enough to see several of these curious animals, who swam right up to the boat and showed off their beautiful hues while spiritedly diving around in the increasingly polluted waters. The dolphins seem to have a special relationship with the dedicated researchers from the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, who have been patiently and non-invasively collecting data about the creatures for decades. The researchers are able to recognize each dolphin on sight, and can casually chat about their quirky personalities and life history in the Pearl River Delta. Sadly, these histories are becoming alarmingly short, as development in the estuary has caused massive destruction to the pods. After a devastating report that an adult and an adolescent dolphin were recently discovered dead on local shores, the current number of local white dolphins left in Hong Kong is down to 60. A decade ago there were well over 150.

More than 1,400 hectares of sea area has been reclaimed since the mid 90s, ruining habitats and fisheries in the Pearl River Delta. Major development projects like the still uncompleted bridge standing between Hong Kong and Macau has caused toxic levels of water pollution, hazardous traffic, and overfishing. Dredging in the delta deposits suspended solids into the water, while dumping in contaminated mud pits releases heavy metals and organochlorides which poison dolphins and further deplete fishing reserves. The toxins affect baby dolphins the most, many of whom are born sick and die very young.

Dolphins are incredibly social creatures that rely upon the strength of their pod for survival. Upsurges of noise pollution caused by development and ferry traffic obscures the echolocation necessary for dolphins to hunt, communicate, and navigate in the delta, leaving many stranded and helpless. The high speed ferry routes directly traverse dolphin estuaries and it has become commonplace for researches to see mangled fins and other injuries from collisions with boat turbines. But the greatest peril is undoubtedly the development still to come. The proposed third runway at Hong Kong International Airport would be the final nail in the coffin for the local population of Chinese white dolphins.

The AAHK’s proposal to build a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport would cause irreparable damage to local marine ecology. The proposed repossession of 650 more hectares of waterway in the heart of three dolphin hotspots in North Chek Lap Kok represents one of the largest reclamation projects in Hong Kong history. The AAHK has claimed that a marine park will be established for the dolphins after the runway is completed in 2022, with utter disregard to the fact that the proposed “park” is already an existing marine area, and therefore cannot possibly mitigate the loss of reclaimed waterways. The assumption that the dolphins would simply return to Hong Kong after construction is finished would be laughable if it wasn’t so devastating.

The loss of the Chinese white dolphins in Hong Kong may be the first casualty on the frontline of a vastly ill-conceived white elephant project, but they would certainly not be the last. The third runway will also greatly damage Lantau Island and contribute to pollution levels that would be hazardous to human health in surrounding areas. The plan is flawed even in its conception. Chek lap Kok is already one of the most congested airspaces in the world, and there is a finite number of flights that can travel through that area regardless of the number of runways. The crowded airspace, and the subsequent narrower waterways below, will not only be unsafe according to international safety standards, but will also have to be merged with airspace that is owned by mainland China and controlled by the People’s Liberation Army.

The endless repercussions of this conservatively estimated $141.5 billion project have yet to be addressed, and “quick fix” mentality is not only deadly to the white dolphin population and their surrounding environment, but it is also politically, socially, and financially unsustainable. It must be made clear that the nonchalance with which this development is being approached is simply unacceptable, and the plight of the irreplaceable white dolphins must be spread in order to save them before it is too late.

Abi Speers - Student from summer internship programme 2016