Bridge to China brings threat for Hong Kong's native pink dolphin

HONG KONG, July 17 (Reuters) - Hong Kong's rare pale pink dolphins are battling for survival as building work on a 19-mile bridge linking the Asian financial hub with China disrupts the communication and feeding activities of the highly sociable animals, marine experts say.

The Chinese white dolphin, which appears pink because of blood vessels beneath its skin, was the official mascot of the former British colony's handover to China in 1997.

But large projects, including recent work on the $19-billion bridge across the Pearl River estuary, threaten the animals, whose number has slumped nearly 80 percent over the past decade to just 47.

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Hong Kong's pink dolphin
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Hong Kong's pink dolphin
In a picture taken on August 19, 2011, a Chinese white dolphin or Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, nicknamed the pink dolphin, swims in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. A Hong Kong conservation group said on January 14, 2012 it has set up a DNA bank for the rare Chinese white dolphin, also known as the pink dolphin, in a bid to save the mammals facing a sharp population decline. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SORABJI (Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Hong Kong-dolphins-conservation, FEATURE BY AARON TAM This picture taken on November 4, 2015, shows Yeung Ka-yan (2nd R) and Josh Lu (R) with other customers on a tour boat trip to see the famous pink dolphins around the waters of Tai O in Hong Kong. As Hong Kong seeks to expand its international airport and with a major new bridge project under way, campaigners warn that the dwindling number of much-loved pink dolphins in surrounding waters may disappear altogether. AFP PHOTO / ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP / Isaac Lawrence (Photo credit should read ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on March 17, 2012 shows a Chinese white dolphin swimming in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. Conservationists warned on May 6, 2013 that Hong Kong may lose its rare Chinese white dolphins, also known as pink dolphins for their unique colour, unless it takes urgent action against pollution and other threats. Their numbers in Hong Kong waters have fallen from an estimated 158 in 2003 to just 78 in 2011, with a further decline expected when figures for 2012 are released next month, said the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. AFP PHOTO / LAURENT FIEVET (Photo credit should read LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Hong Kong-dolphins-conservation, FEATURE BY AARON TAM This picture taken on November 4, 2015, shows a tour boat (R) travelling up a river in Tai O as part of a tour to see the famous pink dolphin in Hong Kong. As Hong Kong seeks to expand its international airport and with a major new bridge project under way, campaigners warn that the dwindling number of much-loved pink dolphins in surrounding waters may disappear altogether. AFP PHOTO / ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP / Isaac Lawrence (Photo credit should read ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images)
CHINA - MARCH 18: Chinese pink dolphins swim off the northern shore of Lantau Island in Hong Kong, China, March 18, 2007. The last pink dolphins off Hong Kong's coast may be threatened by a $1 billion project to make the skies bluer. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Hong Kong-dolphins-conservation, FEATURE BY AARON TAM This picture taken on November 4, 2015, shows a tour boat travelling up a river at Tai O in Hong Kong as part of a tour to see the famous pink dolphin. As Hong Kong seeks to expand its international airport and with a major new bridge project under way, campaigners warn that the dwindling number of much-loved pink dolphins in surrounding waters may disappear altogether. AFP PHOTO / ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP / Isaac Lawrence (Photo credit should read ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images)
In a picture taken on August 19, 2011, a Chinese white dolphin or Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, nicknamed the pink dolphin, swims in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. A Hong Kong conservation group said on January 14, 2012 it has set up a DNA bank for the rare Chinese white dolphin, also known as the pink dolphin, in a bid to save the mammals facing a sharp population decline. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SORABJI (Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Hong Kong-dolphins-conservation, FEATURE BY AARON TAM This picture taken on November 4, 2015, shows tour boat operator Wong Yung-kan (L), watching as a tour boat heads off to see the famous pink dolphins in the waters around Tai O in Hong Kong. As Hong Kong seeks to expand its international airport and with a major new bridge project under way, campaigners warn that the dwindling number of much-loved pink dolphins in surrounding waters may disappear altogether. AFP PHOTO / ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP / Isaac Lawrence (Photo credit should read ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on March 17, 2012 shows a Chinese white dolphin swimming in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. Conservationists warned on May 6, 2013 that Hong Kong may lose its rare Chinese white dolphins, also known as pink dolphins for their unique colour, unless it takes urgent action against pollution and other threats. Their numbers in Hong Kong waters have fallen from an estimated 158 in 2003 to just 78 in 2011, with a further decline expected when figures for 2012 are released next month, said the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. AFP PHOTO / LAURENT FIEVET (Photo credit should read LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on March 17, 2012 shows visiting dolphin conservationist Ric O'Barry (R) from the US taking to people on board a ship as they go and see Chinese white dolphins, nicknamed the 'pink dolphins', in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. AFP PHOTO / LAURENT FIEVET (Photo credit should read LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH: Hong Kong-dolphins-conservation, FEATURE BY AARON TAM This picture taken on November 4, 2015, shows tour boat operator Wong Yung-kan pointing out where the famous pink dolphins are found in the waters around Tai O in Hong Kong. As Hong Kong seeks to expand its international airport and with a major new bridge project under way, campaigners warn that the dwindling number of much-loved pink dolphins in surrounding waters may disappear altogether. AFP PHOTO / ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP / Isaac Lawrence (Photo credit should read ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on March 17, 2012 shows visiting dolphin conservationist Ric O'Barry from the US on board a ship to go and see Chinese white dolphins, nicknamed the 'pink dolphins', in waters off the coast of Hong Kong. AFP PHOTO / LAURENT FIEVET (Photo credit should read LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images)
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"The construction of this bridge poses quite a significant negative impact to the dolphins and caused their really great decline," said Samantha Lee, an official of conservation group WWF in Hong Kong.

Also known as the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, the species has become much harder to spot in nearby waters, Lee added.

A spike in sea traffic around Hong Kong, pollutants and overfishing have contributed to the loss of their habitat.

Greater underwater noise from construction makes it hard for the animals to feed and communicate, said Lindsay Porter, a scientist at marine mammal research consultancy SMRU Hong Kong.

"When you increase that underwater noise, you not only stop dolphins from being able to forage ... we also stop them communicating with each other," Porter said, adding that such interruptions threatened their survival.

More than half the dolphins spotted showed signs of distress, such as skin lesions and infections due to stress and high noise levels, Porter added.

In an email response to Reuters, Hong Kong's conservation department said the decline in dolphin numbers was a complicated issue that needed further data analysis and close monitoring.

"To further protect Chinese white dolphins in Hong Kong, the government plans to designate more marine parks expeditiously," it added.

Government efforts to compensate for infrastructure projects with conservation sites, such as the Brothers Marine Park (BMP), have not brought back the dolphins, however, one environmentalist said.

The "effectiveness of the Brothers Marine Park is highly in doubt," as a result of the construction work, said Taison Chang, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society.

(Reporting by Aleksander Solum; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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