Mekong River dolphins draw close to extinction

Mekong River dolphins draw close to extinction

Don Khon, Laos (dpa) – At sunset on the Mekong River, four rickety wooden boats wait silently as their passengers strain to hear the sound of a splash or a blowhole.

They are hoping for a chance to see some of the most famous inhabitants of southern Laos: Orcaella brevirostris, the Irrawaddy or Mekong River dolphin.

On this March day, the dolphins make their presence known in short bursts to the surface, but keep their distance from the boats and quickly return to the depths.

This makes it hard to see their most distinctive feature: a snub-nosed face that makes them look like they are smiling - a smile that some tour operators photoshop even wider in their blurb.

Local folklore has it that the dolphins are reincarnated spirits of the dead, but their semi-mythical status hasn’t stopped them being nearly wiped out by fishing in Laos and nearby Cambodia, where the aquatic mammal is also revered.

In this pocket of the Mekong, at the southern tip of Laos, there are as few as five dolphins left, according to local boatman Chieg, 30, who takes tourists out at dusk and dawn each day for a chance to view the vanishing species. “There are about four or five,” he estimates, plus one baby dolphin.

Laos’ tiny Mekong dolphin population is a massive tourist draw, but the dolphin can also be found in pockets across a 3,500-kilometre expanse of South-East Asia, living in shallow, brackish water and river-mouths from Bangladesh to the Philippines.

However, the Orcaella brevirostris, one of just seven river species of dolphin in the world, is critically endangered in every country it lives except Bangladesh, where it is classed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The dolphin has become a symbol of South-East Asia’s declining biodiversity, which the region will no doubt contemplate today on the United Nations International Day for Biological Diversity. There are deep concerns the species may go the way of the Baiji, a freshwater dolphin that has disappeared from China’s Yangtze River following the death of the last-known dolphin in 2002.

The majority of the Mekong’s dolphins, around 80, live in Cambodia, just 184 kilometres over the border from Don Khon.

The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar was home to just 59 river dolphins at the most recent count in 2003, according to IUCN, a number that has likely decreased since then.

Helene Marsh, professor of environmental science at James Cook University in Australia, says the cause of their decline is no secret.

"The greatest threat to the dolphins is accidental capture in fishing nets and possibly electrofishing.

The root cause of that problem is poverty and the need for fish to overcome food insecurity,” she told dpa by email.

The gillnet, a passive form of fishing that leaves a net hanging in the water for hours, is a major culprit as dolphins become trapped underwater and drown before the air-breathing animals can be rescued.

Chakrey Un, Communications Manager at the World Wildlife Fund-Cambodia, also identified the gillnet as a major threat, despite being illegal in Cambodia.

He also said the shrinking of the waterways from this year's worst drought in decades has pushed more dolphins into the path of fishermen.

"The water level in the Mekong is shallower this hot season compared to previous years. This makes the deep pools, which are the habitat of the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins, threatened by illegal [gillnet] fishing because the fish migrate there,” he said. 

The WWF-Cambodia is working with fishermen to teach them sustainable fishing techniques through community fisheries, and in other cases retrain them for agricultural work.

Scientists and conservationists also say the Mekong's hydropower dams are another threat. They are the engine of South-East Asia's economy, but have severely damaged aquatic habitats for dolphins and thousands of other flora and fauna species of the Mekong.

The proposed Don Sahong Dam in southern Laos, a joint project of the Lao government and Malaysia’s Mega First Corporation Berhad, has been heavily criticised by the WWF and other environmental groups because of its potential impact on the dolphin and other species in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

"The Don Sahong Dam is a disastrous project, impacting the last Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins and the food security of the millions of people depending on the river's fisheries," according to the WWF's campaign website.

The project has an uncertain future but has not been cancelled.

The dolphin's fate is also in the balance, Marsh said, although international experts have been able to work with Cambodia to set up conservation and research projects.

"Whether this intervention will save the Mekong population is not known.” 

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