Dolphin of the river dance endangered by demand from Asia's marine parks

The Irrawaddy dolphins, famed for their belly dancing mating ritual, are among a host of endangered species being considered for legal safeguards by the United Nations Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which is meeting in Bangkok on Saturday.

In the wild, the river dolphins make a splash with their foreplay, belly dancing clear of the water before delivering a mating performance commonly saluted by a pod of up to 10 onlookers.

But Asia's burgeoning trade in aquatic parks, which prize the elaborate rituals of these cute dancing dolphins, also known as Orcaella brevirostris, could spell disaster for the dwindling Irrawaddy population.

Maitri Duangsawat, from Thailand's Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, urges immediate action "to prevent the increase in marine parks throughout Asia from boosting trade in the species".

Thailand's appeal for a ban in the trade on these dolphins - which number barely 3,000 animals in the wild - is among 50 amendments to the Cites wildlife treaty that will be considered at the two-week convention, featuring delegates from 166 countries.

Some 80 new marine parks are on the drawing board in Asia alone. Most are particularly keen on the Irrawaddy, because they are among the easiest to train and because they can be kept in freshwater tanks, far cheaper to maintain than corrosive seawater pools.

At least 10 Chinese aquariums already own Irrawaddy dolphins, which are made to perform five 40-minute shows every day. Singapore is known to have acquired four of the rare creatures for captive display, and Japan has three. Furtive trading makes the census difficult to complete. Unlike bottlenose dolphins or porpoises, found in most dolphinariums, Irrawaddys can tail-dance with ease, lifting their bodies clear of the water. They can even precision-squirt water at targets up to five feet away.

At present trade in these natural showboaters is controlled, but the growth in demand means a ban is needed, say campaigners.

Stage and commercial exploitation are not the only dangers facing wild dolphins, which are threatened with everything from death by dynamite fishing to asphyxiation in beach nets. Other dolphins are poisoned by the run-off from gold mining.

Dams scheduled to be built on tributaries to the Mekong river will further threaten their habitat because they swim in the shallows - both brackish and freshwater - and are found in isolated pockets from Burma to Australia. Many get trapped in fishing nets as they compete with humans for a menu of squid, cuttlefish and catfish.

Although rarely hunted for their meat, oil extracted from their carcasses is said to be therapeutic in India as a balm for rheumatism.

Burmese fishermen have been known to summon Irrawaddy dolphins by thumping the surface of the water, and traditionally encourage them to herd fish by circling close towards the boats; the reward is a share of the catch.

Cambodian sailors have described how the dolphins can catch a big fish for sport by stunning it with a blow from its lower jaw. They then toy with the fish before discarding it. Species Survival Network, a collective of 80 wildlife activist groups, drew special attention yesterday to the plight of sea life, advocating that certain species of whales, sharks, and even mussels need an increased level of protection.

"We have overfished ourselves," Will Travers, president of the organisation, said. "Frankly, it's become a global issue." In years past, it was "more difficult to discuss fish" at the Cites meeting because of powerful commercial lobbies, he said.

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