• The designation of protected areas should be based on sound scientific evidence of the target species’ distribution and habitat use to ensure that the areas most important to the dolphins’ survival are protected from threats.
  • The designated category of protected area should be based on an understanding of the main threats to be mitigated, and whether it is possible to achieve the desired conservation aims while allowing the necessary level of human activity to continue in the area.
  • Designation of protected areas will only be effective if effective management is also in place, including surveillance and enforcement of regulations.
  • Many aspects of protected area management, including surveillance and enforcement, can involve local communities, and will be more effective if they do.
  • Internationally recognised designations, like Ramsar sites or Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), can provide an additional level of recognition by financial institutions, industries and conservation organisations, and KBA assessments can provide a useful step toward the identification of areas that merit legal protection.


Why are protected areas needed for river dolphin conservation?

In the face of increasing human pressure on river dolphin habitats, protected areas can be designed to exclude, or place restrictions on, a range of potentially harmful human activities, such as fishing, navigation and infrastructure, extractive activities such as oil and gas exploration or production, mining, and other activities that could contribute to pollution or degradation of river dolphin habitat. When well managed, protected areas are one of the most effective ways to ensure that critical habitat for dolphins persists, and that dolphins can thrive. Protected areas can provide a sense of pride, ownership and involvement for local communities, who can be engaged in their management. However, ‘paper parks’ that are designated in name only, without proper management, surveillance and enforcement, will do little to protect dolphins.

Which protected areas exist in river dolphin rivers?

In the entire world, there are 60 protected areas that overlap with river dolphin ranges. The total list can be found in Annex 3 of WWF’s River dolphin strategy 2018-20301.

Categories of protected areas

How can protected areas be used to protect dolphins?

The IUCN has defined a range of categories of protected areas that are classified based on their management objectives. These categories are recognised as the global standard for defining protected areas, and are applied by international bodies as well as national governments. The IUCN includes the relevant categories, each of which could be applied to river dolphin protection, and also provides extensive guidelines for applying protected area status. In all cases, the design of protected areas requires a good scientific understanding of the distribution and habitat use of the target species, in this case river dolphins, so that the boundaries of protected areas include areas of core importance for the species.

  • (1a) Strict Nature Reserve: Category 1a sites are strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values. 
  • (1b) Wilderness Area: Category 1b protected areas are usually largely unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition. 
  • (2) National Park: Category 2 protected areas are large, natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the species and ecosystems characteristic of the area, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible, spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational, and visitor opportunities.  
  • (3) Natural Monument or Feature: Category 3 protected areas are set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, submarine cavern, geological feature such as a cave, or even a living feature such as an ancient grove. They are generally quite small protected areas and often have high visitor value.  
  • (4) Habitat/Species Management Area: Category 4 protected areas aim to protect particular species or habitats, and management reflects this priority. Many Category 4 protected areas will need regular, active interventions to address the requirements of particular species or to maintain habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.  
  • (5) Protected Landscape: A protected area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant, ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values. 
  • (6) Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources: Category 6 protected areas conserve ecosystems and habitats together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. They are generally large, with most of the area in a natural condition, where a proportion is under sustainable, natural resource management and where low-level, non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims of the area. 

This range of categories allows  a strategy to be chosen that is most appropriate to address the potential threats in a particular area, and to meet the desired conservation aims. In some cases, where habitats are still relatively pristine, the strictest categories of protected area (1a or 1b) that exclude all human activities may be the most effective way to protect river dolphins and their habitats from future potential harm. In other cases, where human livelihoods are dependent on resources shared with the dolphins, protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources (category 6) may be more realistic, with clear agreements to define ‘sustainable use’ and mitigate impacts.

In addition to these IUCN-defined categories that can be applied by national governments to dolphin habitats, there are a number of international categories of protected areas that can be of relevance to river dolphin protection. These schemes, which are recognised by many international lenders and industry bodies, include:

  • Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs): KBAs are ‘sites that contribute significantly to the global persistence of biodiversity‘ in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems2. This global framework uses established criteria to designate areas that are of importance for species and habitats. While KBA status does not confer any legal protection in the way that a nationally designated protected area or a Ramsar site does, they have been integrated into the safeguarding policies of major financial institutions, including the World Bank3, 4. Furthermore, the KBA assessment process can help to identify sites that merit legal protection, and legally protected areas can overlap with, or reside within KBAs.


Examples of protected areas benefiting river dolphins

  • The National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) is a national wildlife sanctuary encompassing 625km of the Chambal River in northern India, extending to 6km on either river bank. Established in 1979, the NCS was created to protect the unique and diverse wildlife in the region. Originally designated to help protect the Critically Endangered Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), the NCS has also benefited Ganges river dolphin populations in the region. Dolphin sightings increased from an average of 0.14/km in 1983-85 to 0.30/km in 2014 and it is estimated that over 150 Ganges river dolphins depend on the NCS5.  This is an example of an IUCN Category 4 (Species Management Area) protected area.
  • In June 2018, the Bita river basin was designated as the largest Ramsar site in Colombia.  In order to maintain this free-flowing river, land use and fisheries management and other conservation actions are being implemented, providing a protection model for freshwater ecosystems that could be replicated elsewhere6.
  • With support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Bangladesh Forest Department led a project for Expanding the Protected Areas System to Incorporate Important Aquatic Ecosystems, which provided support for community patrols in the three wildlife sanctuaries for dolphin conservation in the Sundarbans and for the government to declare three new wildlife sanctuaries that would also principally aim to protect Irrawaddy and Ganges river dolphins from the recognised threats of fisheries, pollution, mining and infrastructure development. For more details see this report
  • In 2018, the IUCN Asia Regional Office and IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit, identified and validated freshwater KBAs in the Lower Mekong River basin using the published Global Standard for the Identification of Key Biodiversity Areas. This led to the identification of 18 important river, lake and wetland systems as priority sites for conservation action. These include Irrawaddy dolphin habitat, and will play an important role in raising awareness of their conservation needs.


  1. WWF, 2018. River dolphin strategy 2018-2030; global priorities for conservation
  2. IUCN, 2016. Standard for the Identification of Key Biodiversity Areas. Available at:!executive-summary/c109f IUCN. 2016. A Global Standard for the Identification of Key Biodiversity Areas, Version 1.0.
  3. BirdLife International, 2018. How to get involved? The World Database of Key Biodiversity Areas, Accessed 08.10.18, http://
  4. World Bank, 2016, World Bank Environmental and Social Framework, World Bank, Washington DC, Accessed 08.10.18,
  5. Sharma, R. K., & Singh, L. A. K. (2014). Status of Gangetic Dolphin (Platanista gangetica) in National Chambal Sanctuary after thirty years. Zoos’ Print Magazine, 22-27.
  6. Suarez, C., Páez-Vásquez, M.,, Trujillo, F.,Usma Oviedo, J., Thieme, M., Bassi, A., Naranjo, L.,  Costanzo, S., Manrique, O., Pallaske, G., Flechas, J., 2021. How to Protect Free Flowing Rivers: The Bita River Ramsar Site as an Example of Science and Management Tools Working Together. Sustainability. 13. 1775. 10.3390/su13041775. DOI:10.3390/su13041775