Fight to save Cambodia’s river dolphins from extinction
KRATIE, Cambodia: Bulging gray heads break through the murky waters of Cambodia’s Mekong River as a pod of rare Irrawaddy dolphins come up to breathe, drawing excited murmurs from tourists watching from nearby boats.
The exciting sight could soon become just a memory as the endangered mammals’ numbers dwindle despite efforts to conserve them.
Cambodia has announced tough new restrictions on fishing in the huge river to try to reduce the number of dolphins killed in nets.
But in a country with limited financial resources, enforcing the rules on a river hundreds of meters wide, dotted with small islands and lined with dense undergrowth, is a major challenge.
“We’re afraid we won’t be able to protect them,” says river warden Phon Pharong while on patrol in search of illegal gillnets.
Gillnets — vertical mesh nets that stay in the water for long periods of time — catch fish indiscriminately and are the leading cause of death for dolphins in the Mekong, according to conservationists.
Pharong is one of more than 70 guards patrolling a 120-kilometer stretch of the Mekong from the northeastern province of Kratie to near the Laos border.
Guards say their efforts are hampered by limited resources – and intimidation by fishing gangs.
Mok Ponlork, a fisheries ministry official who heads the dolphin conservation watch in Kratie, has 44 people to patrol an 85-kilometer stretch but says he needs at least 60 to do the job effectively.
With no staff, the guards know they are playing a game of cat and mouse with those fishing on the river.
“If we patrol at night, they don’t go. When we return during the day, they go into the river,” Pharong said.
Low wages mean guards are forced to take extra work ashore to support their families, preventing them from patrol duty.
Each watch receives about $65 a month from the government, while the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) funds an additional $5 for a day of patrol.
Tourists sit on the boat as freshwater dolphins swim by in the Mekong River in Cambodia’s Kratie Province in this photo taken on Feb. 17, 2023. (Photo: AFP)
– Shrinking Numbers –
Small, shy creatures with bulging foreheads and short beaks, Irrawaddy dolphins once swam through much of the mighty Mekong River all the way to the Delta in Vietnam.
Illegal fishing and plastic waste have killed many, and dolphin habitat has been reduced by upstream dams and climate change, which have had a major impact on river water levels.
The population of the Mekong has fallen from 200 at the first census in 1997 to just 89 in 2020.
The species only lives in two other rivers, according to the WWF: the Ayeyarwady in Myanmar and the Mahakam in Indonesia.
The three river populations are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Irrawaddy dolphins are found in both freshwater and saltwater, and are slightly more numerous in coastal areas of South and Southeast Asia – although even there they are classified as vulnerable.
Adding to concerns about the future of Mekong dolphins is that around 70% of dolphins are now too old to reproduce.
Eleven Mekong dolphins died last year, but in December the death of three healthy breeding-age dolphins, who became entangled in fishing nets and lines within a week, sparked particular concern among conservationists.
“This is a worrying sign,” Seng Teak, WWF Cambodia country director, told AFP.
“We need a lot to ensure this species continues to survive in the Mekong,” he said, urging the government “to mobilize more resources for dolphin conservation.”
– protection zones –
At the end of February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen enacted a new law creating protection zones where fishing is prohibited.
Violators face up to a year in prison for using gillnets and up to five years for electrofishing in the protected areas.
In one such zone around the village of Kampi, 24 guards patrol a 22-square-kilometer stretch of the river 24 hours a day.
“If they put out gillnets in the protected zones, we will arrest them. If they use electrofishing there will be no mercy, they will be arrested and brought to justice,” Ponlork said.
So far, the extra push seems to be paying off: there are no more dead and even a ray of hope.
“We received word from tourist boat operators that a baby dolphin was born a few days ago,” Ponlork said.
Aerial photo taken on February 17, 2023 shows an area of the Mekong river where freshwater dolphins live in Cambodia’s Kratie province. (Photo: AFP)
Many locals who make a living by taking tourists to see dolphins or selling related souvenirs are also concerned about the future of mammals.
“When the dolphins are gone, it’s over because our income comes from dolphins,” said Meas Mary, 53, who makes up to $15 a day from boat trips.
“There used to be a lot of dolphins. Now they’re gone. I’m so worried.”
Source: Crypto News Deutsch