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The 2015 WDC Bharathi Viswanathan Award

In 2013, WDC launched the Bharathi Viswanathan Award for Innovative and Non-Invasive research with the intention of showcasing non-invasive research methodologies, highlighting the fact that many of these methods provide scientific data of excellent quality, whilst also promoting the development of innovative and non-invasive approaches towards studying whales and dolphins.
Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin in Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo
Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin in Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo

Response to the launch of the 2015 Award

As with previous years, we were delighted with the high quality of applicants and the huge variety of both innovative and non-invasive research methods – each year the standard continues to get better and better and our job becomes harder and harder.

Our ultimate winner was chosen due to a combination of factors; the species involved, the location, the linkages between local communities, sustainable fisheries resources and a protected area. All these things contributed to Dr Lindsay Porter becoming our third Award beneficiary.


Dr. Lindsay Porter
Dr. Lindsay Porter

Lindsay moved to Asia in the early 1990’s to carry out the research for her PhD on the impact of man and his activities on inshore tropical delphinids. In particular, her PhD focused on the population of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) that reside in Hong Kong waters. Realising that the Hong Kong population was very much influenced by anthropogenic activities, Lindsay sought out a population which was in a less disturbed environment. In doing so, she discovered a previously unreported population of Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris). Focusing on this species, as well as other populations of tropical cetaceans, Lindsay now has projects that span Hong Kong to Borneo to Sri Lanka.  Lindsay sits on several regional and international committees including the South East Asia Marine Mammal association (SEAMMAM), the Marine Mammal Society and the Society for Conservation Biology. She is also a  member of the IUCN-SSC Cetacean Specialist Group. Although based in Asia, like most Scots, Lindsay remains firmly associated with her homeland and conducts her many projects as a Senior Research Scientist at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. 

Lindsay’s project is entitled “Assessment of the Status of Tropical Delphinids in the Kinabatangan RAMSAR site and Adjacent Areas” and will be conducted on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia. 

** The RAMSAR Convention is otherwise known as the Wetlands Convention and it is an inter-governmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise-use of wetlands and their resources. There are 128 contracting parties (or countries), a total of 2,193 sites with a total surface area of 208,843,795 hectares.

The Project

The assessment of skin condition as a means to establish health status in the short term is a recent initiative that has been used to compare Irrawaddy dolphin populations within South East Asia and can be used to show immediate changes in population health.

Irrawaddy dolphin in Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo
Irrawaddy dolphin in Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo

In 2008, Malaysia designated their largest RAMSAR site, located in the Lower Kinabatangan-Segama Wetlands (LKSW) in Sabah on the island of Borneo. The area has been pro-actively managed since 2010. A study of the two dolphin populations occurring within the site (Irrawaddy and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins) was conducted in 2011/12 during which it was noted that individual animals showed a variety of skin conditions. Importantly, the health of a resident dolphin population can be an indicator of the health of the habitat within which they reside and within which local communities source their fish.  Two other areas bordering the RAMSAR site were subsequently identified as being regularly frequented by Irrawaddy dolphins and in 2013/14, community interviews were conducted to ascertain the extent of these dolphin populations. 

Areas of survey in the Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo

In areas where there has been a baseline established prior to pro-active management measures being put in place, changes in skin condition can provide an indication of the success of management measures. Additional images from the two adjacent areas will allow spatial comparison of the health of separate populations. Specifically, are there any significant differences between marine mammal skin conditions inside and outside the RAMSAR site? Are current management measures within the protected area having positive effects? Comparison of photographically identified individuals will also be compared to determine if the populations are indeed separate.

This project therefore, proposes to evaluate:

1)    Dolphin population health between the RAMSAR site and two adjacent and separate sites by assessing high resolution images of dorsal fins and skin condition;

2)    Differences in dolphin population health at the RAMSAR site by comparing the first study in 2010/11 and this second study, after more than five years of proactive management

3)    Fisheries resources by conducting structured interviews with local fishing communities in all three areas to determine the pressure on aquatic resources, i.e., mainly fisheries, within and outside the RAMSAR site

Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin
Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin


Irrawaddy dolphin in Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo
Irrawaddy dolphin in Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo

The overall aim of this project is to assess whether or not protection measures within the RAMSAR site are adequate, ensure the long-term viability of dolphin populations using non-invasive methods, ensure the sustainability of fish resources and encourage the development of the livelihoods of those people that live along fragile river shores. On-going assessment of management plans is essential for biodiversity conservation and livelihood preservation.