Scientists meet to conserve the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin in the Mekong River



Posted on 27 April 2014  | 
A dolphin calf was photographed by researchers when swimming at Kampi Pool in the Mekong River in 2014.
© Lor Kim San / WWF-CambodiaEnlarge
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 23-24 April 2014 – His Excellency Dr Nao Thuok, Director General of the Cambodian Government’s Fisheries Administration, presided over a meeting of national and international experts to discuss the implementation status of 2012 Kratie Declaration in order to update it with effective conservation actions. The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin is globally important, yet critically endangered. Fisheries Administration and WWF studies estimated that between 78-91 animals remain in the River and that there is strong evidence to suggest the population is in slow decline.

“Only a few decades ago, I saw with my own eyes thousands of Irrawaddy dolphins swimming throughout the Mekong River and into the Great Lake of Tonle Sap. Now their numbers have greatly reduced and they are restricted to an area between Kratie province and the border with Lao PDR,” said H.E. Nao Thuok in his opening statement.

“It is my hope that this workshop provides a clearer understanding of the causes of calf mortality and recommendations to support development of appropriate strategy to secure the stability of the animal population.”

The Government of Cambodia and WWF are collaboratively implementing the Kratie Declaration to focus efforts on minimising gillnet-related mortality and other pressures from illegal fishing activities through effective law enforcement and monitoring, understanding dolphin behaviour and population status, and determining other causes of mortality especially in calves.

Through a new dolphin protected area sub-decree, the Royal Cambodian Government banned the use of gillnets within the core zones of dolphin habitat over a 180-km stretch of river between Kratie town and the Laos border to prevent accidental catching of dolphins. Together with other existing laws related to fisheries, this sub-decree is reinforced by 70 Government’s River Guards who station at a total of 17 outposts along the dolphin habitat. As a result, mortality of adult dolphin due to accidental entanglement in fishing nets has reduced.

“Local and provincial authorities in Kratie and Steung Treng are actively working to support enforcement efforts by the Fisheries Administration and WWF, and effectively crackdown on illegal fishing activities, for example a total of about 60,000 meters of gillnets was confiscated and destroyed in 2014,” said H.E. Khan Chamnan, Deputy Governor of Kratie.

The Mekong River dolphin is a revered species and an important part of the natural heritage of Cambodia. The dolphins are sacred to the Cambodian people and are an important source of income for communities involved in dolphin-watching tourism. Its disappearance would represent a tragic loss.

“The Mekong dolphin is a flagship animal and one of the highest conservation priorities for WWF in the Greater Mekong region, including Cambodia and Laos. It is critical to save this iconic animal for the benefit of conservation of the Mekong biodiversity and the people whose livelihoods depend on the river resources,” said Mr Chhith Sam Ath, Country Director of WWF in Cambodia.

Among new research directions undertaken since the 2012 Kratie Declaration, some of the most exciting results seen at this workshop came from behavioural studies being done this dry season. Close observation of dolphin behaviour seems to suggest mothers and calves are involved more often than others in social behaviour; an unexpected result. This research is ongoing and is expected to be completed in coming months.

Proposed mainstream dams on the Mekong River including the Don Sahong project loom ominously as a major risk to the river’s Irrawaddy dolphins. Meeting participants endorsed the recent WWF study on the impact of the proposed Don Sahong dam on the dolphins.

“The proposed Don Sahong dam would almost certainly cause the disappearance of the dolphin group on the Laos-Cambodia border, and heighten the risk of losing the entire Mekong dolphin population forever,” said Dr Randall Reeves, Chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cetacean Specialist Group, and spokesperson for the international expert panel.

The panel of national and international experts put forward key recommendations for conservation action, which include strengthening enforcement activities and implementing the 10-year moratorium on mainstream dams pending completion of independent, comprehensive and scientific trans-boundary studies, with the inclusion of transparent consultation with governments, civil society and communities that would be affected by the proposed dam.

The meeting was organised by teams of the Fisheries Administration and WWF, and funded by HSBC Warer Programme, IUCN's Save Our Species (SoS) Programme, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF).

Participants in the meeting included representatives from the Fisheries Administration, Kratie and Stung Treng provincial fisheries cantonment, the California Marine Mammal Centre, the United States National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Duke University, the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, the US Marine Mammal Commission, James Cook University and WWF.
A dolphin calf was photographed by researchers when swimming at Kampi Pool in the Mekong River in 2014.
© Lor Kim San / WWF-Cambodia Enlarge
Researchers from the Cambodian Government’s Fisheries Administration and WWF take photographs of dolphins in the Mekong River in order to understand the animal’s population status and behaviour.
© Julia Goss / WWF-Cambodia Enlarge

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