The battle to save river dolphins

In need of protection: A freshwater dolphin swimming in the Mekong River in Cambodia’s Kratie province. — AFP

BULGING grey heads break the turbid waters of the Mekong River in Cambodia as a pod of rare Irrawaddy dolphins surfaces to breathe, drawing excited murmurs from tourists watching from nearby boats.

The thrilling sight may soon be no more than a memory, as numbers of the endangered mammals dwindle despite efforts to preserve them.

Cambodia has announced tough new restrictions on fishing in the vast river to try and reduce the number of dolphins killed in nets.

But in a country with limited financial resources, it’s a huge challenge to enforce the rules on a river hundreds of metres wide that is dotted with islets and lined with dense undergrowth.

“We fear we cannot protect them,” says river guard Phon Pharong during a patrol searching for illegal gillnets.

Gillnets -- vertical mesh nets left in the water for long periods -- trap fish indiscriminately and are the main cause of death for dolphins in the Mekong, according to conservationists.

Pharong is one of more than 70 guards who patrol a 120km stretch of the Mekong from northeastern Kratie province close to the Laos border.

The guards say their efforts are hampered by limited resources -- and intimidation by fishing gangs.

Mok Ponlork, a fisheries department official who leads the dolphin conservation guards in Kratie, has 44 people to monitor an 85km stretch but says to do the job effectively he would need at least 60.

Without the staffing, the guards know they are playing a losing game of cat and mouse with those fishing the river.

“If we patrol at night, they don’t go. When we return at daytime, they go in the river,” Pharong said.

Low wages mean guards are forced to take extra work onshore to support their families, taking them away from patrol duties.

Each guard receives about US$65 (RM289) a month from the government, while WWF funds another US$5 (RM22) for a day of patrolling.

Irrawaddy dolphins -- small, shy creatures with domed foreheads and short beaks -- once swam through much of the mighty Mekong, all the way to the delta in Vietnam.

Illegal fishing and plastic waste have killed many, and the dolphins’ habitat has been reduced by upstream dams and climate change, which have had a major impact on water levels in the river.

The population in the Mekong has dwindled from 200, when the first census was taken in 1997, to just 89 in 2020.

The species lives in only two other rivers: Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady and the Mahakam in Indonesia, according to WWF.

The three river populations are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list of threatened species.

Adding to concerns about the Mekong dolphins’ future, around 70% of the population is now too old to breed. — AFP

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