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University of Pretoria Mammal Research Whale Unit to save southern right whales, other cetaceans

A southern right whale and her calf. Picture: Supplied

A southern right whale and her calf. Picture: Supplied

Published Feb 24, 2022


Betty Moleya

Pretoria - The World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa and the University of Pretoria will partner in the University of Pretoria Mammal Research Whale Unit to save the southern right whales and other cetaceans.

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The unit is meant to move them and their partners towards a strategic new conservation, raise awareness of the plight of these endangered mammals and halt their destruction.

The southern right whales are the special focus, and they are at high risk due to environmental hazards such as climate change and overfishing.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa, there is a lack of concrete local and global action to tackle the threats to cetaceans in increasingly polluted, over-exploited and human-dominated seas and river systems.

Dr Els Vermeulen from the University of Pretoria said southern right whales visited South African shores each year between June and November.

“They are a migratory whale species. During summer they are found foraging grounds in the southern ocean and in winter they are spotted on calving grounds along the coasts of South America, South Africa and Australia/New Zealand. The South African population is the largest of them all.

“Approximately four to five southern right whales may strand along our coast each year, however, the general mortality rate of adult southern right whales is relatively low,” Vermeulen said.

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The challenges for these mammals is the decreasing population due to decreased reproductive rate.

“The population is much more affected by a decreased reproductive rate, meaning that less babies are entering the population than normal, this is what is decreasing the speed at which the population is growing.”

Vermeulen said results were clearly showing that southern right whales were being affected, mainly by a changing southern ocean, driven by climate change.

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People were advised to stop all activities that contribute to changing climate, like energy consumption and use of non-renewable energies.

“However, when we speak about marine mammals in South African coastal waters in general, the resident (non-migratory) coastal dolphin (for example, Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, classified as endangered) and whale species (for example, Bryde’s whale, classified as endangered) will be much more affected by our day-to-day activity and pollution of our beaches, like coastal run-offs, plastic pollution etc,” said Vermeulen.

According to the UN, since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.

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“Burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gas emissions that act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping the sun’s heat and raising temperatures.”

Pretoria News