June 25, 2009

Timor To Establish National Protection For Whales, Dolphins

A national park established to protect groups of dolphins and whales - recently discovered mingling and feeding off East Timor - may soon be funded by the young Asian country's own government, AFP reported.

However, some foreign assistance will be required to preserve the area and develop eco-tourism in one of the few places in the world with such a wide variety of large sea mammals, officials said.

Officials in Dili said aerial surveys of the hotspot from scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science showed an exceptional diversity and abundance of dolphins and whales.

Lead scientist Mark Meekan said East Timor has a period of the year where there is an incredible diversity of cetacean species, including dolphins, small whales and even large whales.

"That makes Timor quite unique," he added.

The Australian and Timorese researchers spotted endangered blue whales, sperm whales and sei whales during flights along the island's northern and southern coasts between April and November.

In November, the researchers recorded spinner and spotted dolphins, which are internationally classified as depleted species, that were gathered in groups or pods of several hundred that had mixed with small whales.

The animals are squeezed together in vast numbers due to a narrow, deep-sea trench around the mountainous island. Meekan said more research is needed to learn why they are there and if it is an annual migration route.

The Timorese leadership has vowed to declare the area a protected national park and develop it for ecotourism. Meekan said the Asian Development Bank, the newly established six-nation Coral Triangle Initiative and other foreign donors, might help with funding.

East Timor is being encouraged to promote whale watching and conduct follow-up studies to identify migratory pathways and establish guidelines for protecting species, according to the marine institute.

"It is our moral responsibility to implement them for the affluence of the Timorese people," Mariano Sabino, the minister for agriculture and fisheries, told The Associated Press.

While outside help is essential to the effort, Sabino said he did not immediately have a firm estimate of how much would be required.

After four centuries of foreign dominance and a 24-year Indonesian occupation, during which as many 183,000 people were killed, abducted or starved to death, East Timor finally became an independent nation in 2002.

Internal violence escalated in 2006, resulting in dozens of deaths and threats of a possible civil war, just as tourism had begun to pick up.

Curt Jenner, managing director of the Australian Center for Whale Research, said the discovery of world-class marine life within a mile of East Timor's shores poses an opportunity to help reduce towering unemployment for the country's 1 million people.

Jenner said it shows the world that intensely productive areas such as this only exist in a very few and special places on the planet.

"If tourism and science can help protect these areas, then that's perfect," he said.