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Saving the Kenyan Humpback Dolphin: KWS Marine Protection Mission in Malindi

Very little is known about the marine mammal species in Kenya. In fact, many Kenyan citizens will easily name the big five and fail to list a dolphin as a mammal found within its borders. It’s unfortunate, and mostly because the Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin Sousa Plumbea (one of the rarest dolphins in the western Indian Ocean) has a habitat in Kenya.

Part of the reason behind the insufficient knowledge is much of the data is based on intel gathered from stranded animals and data collected during an aerial survey between 1994-2001.

Consequently, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), a state corporation, that manages, wildlife in the country has started a project in Malindi Watamu National Marine park to further extend its endangered wildlife protection efforts.

On 22nd March 2021, KWS took an essential step for science and the protection of endangered marine life in the Malindi Marine Park.

But before we get into the details of that operation, let’s first understand Kenya’s relationship with the humpbacks.

Indian Ocean Humpback recorded sightings

Kenya’s first commercial dolphin tours began in the 1990s, with a concentration in the central and southern coastal areas of MWMPA – Malindi Watamu National Marine Park and KMMPA – Kisite-Mpunguti National Marine Park and Reserve.

In 2016, an expedition by Dr. Gill Braulik in Pemba and Misali islands led to the discovery of a small isolated population of Indian Ocean Humpback dolphins. On 15th March 2019, another sighting was made in Malindi Marine Park when a big family of humpback dolphins was spotted.

According to Marine Mammal Habitat, the Indian Ocean humpback dolphins and spinner dolphins can be found in the Kisite – Shimoni area all year round. Between July and October, this location also acts as a calving and nursing habitat for humpback whales from the Southern Hemisphere.

The Kisite – Shimoni area and the marine wildlife are essential tourist attractions for Shimoni and surrounding communities. It remains one of the highest-ranking Marine Parks within Kenya, both in tourist attraction and revenue.

The Indian humpback dolphin is not native to Kenyan coastal waters. Their population is mainly limited to South African waters, the coastal waters around Zanzibar and Mozambique.

Due to their proximity to the coast, the humpback dolphins are more at risk from human interference, and, consequently, they are the most threatened species of marine mammals that require management.

Currently, the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin is listed in the IUCN Red List as an endangered marine species.

Kenya Wildlife Service mission for the protection of humpback dolphins

On 22nd March 2021, KWS – Malindi embarked on a mission to protect the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin in the Malindi marine park. With the Wildlife Conservation Society WIO Program’s help, two acoustic recording devices were deployed to record the vocalizations of these species of dolphins and whales that inhabit the Marine Protect location.

Kenya Wildlife Service divers working with Watamu Marine Association positioned the acoustic devices that will remain submerged for one month, recording the mammals.  During the operation, the team was accompanied by a pod of humpback dolphins (a clear sign of approval for their efforts).

The Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, apart from being endangered, also suffer from human interference within their habitat.  Since they frequent shallow waters at the coast where water is murky, they have limited vision and strongly rely on sound for social communication, foraging, and navigation. It is due to this reason, the acoustic recording devices by WCS – WIO Program are effective for monitoring mammals.  

KWS has offered the species a chance to thrive by protecting the area. Noise pollution from marine vessels, which produce sound in the dolphin’s production range frequency, causes acoustic disturbances to the mammals.

The protected area also offers them cover from plastic waste, fishing lines, and debris that are the leading killer of endangered marine life globally. The wildlife state corporation and Malindi marine park’s efforts are worthy, considering, in almost all countries’ coasts where humpback dolphins occur, they are either hunted or accidentally caught and kept or used for food.

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