Saving the Mekong River’s dolphins

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Asia General

Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Cambodia (Kampuchea)
Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Lao People's Democratic Republic
Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Vietnam

Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) in the Mekong river, Kratie province. Cambodia.
© WWF Cambodia

Summary

With a characteristically rounded head, no beak, and sporting a small triangular shaped dorsal fin with a rounded tip below the centre of the back, the Irrawaddy dolphin can easily be mistaken for a beluga whale or finless porpoise. But these dolphins - who inhabit the coasts, estuaries and rivers of South and Southeast Asia - are getting harder to spot.

Accidental entanglement in fishing gear, pollution and habitat destruction have contributed to their demise. In the Mekong River – between Laos and Cambodia – less than 100 have been counted. To ensure the survival of the remaining in the Mekong, WWF is working with the Cambodian government and local communities through targeted conservation activities, research and education.

Background

WWF's involvement in this project began in 2005 and builds upon the work previously undertaken independently by the Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project since 2001.

The primary aims of the project are to undertake a comprehensive status assessment of the Irrawaddy dolphin population that inhabits the Mekong River, develop and implement effective conservation and management initiatives and build capacity amongst local government officials.

The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin population is currently very small (less than 100 individuals). However, the potential for effective conservation and subsequent population growth is encouraging. The restricted nature of the dolphins critical distribution (particularly during the dry season) coupled with local communities’ cultural affinity for the dolphins means that conservation measures have significant potential to be applied successfully. In addition, the Cambodian government is supportive of conservation measures and initiatives.

Previous conservation efforts by the Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project had been operating on extremely limited resources but managed to develop a sound understanding of the situation facing the Irrawaddy dolphins of the Mekong. As a result, a comprehensive species conservation plan was developed. However, in order to effectively implement this plan, it is essential that efforts are scaled up and effectively coordinated. Immediate action is necessary to secure the future of this population in the Mekong River, before the population becomes so small that conservation efforts are effectively futile. The project aims to achieve this through institutionalizing conservation efforts within the Cambodian government and ensuring all activities contribute effectively towards the species conservation plan.

The Irrawaddy dolphin has been chosen by the WWF Living Mekong Programme (LMP) as one of its flagship species, as it represents an apex predator in the Mekong food chain. As such, its fate is indicative of the fate of a host of other species in the Mekong. This point is highlighted by the fact that the dolphin’s critical habitat – deep pools – is also vital to maintaining the fisheries’ productivity for large portions of the basin as they act as a dry season refuge to a host of commercially important species.

As a large mammal with great cultural significance to local communities, the loss of this species in itself would be symbolic enough.

Objectives

Ensure the survival of the remaining population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River.

There are 4 main components:
- Conservation activities.
- Education and awareness.
- Research.
- Coordination and regional cooperation.

Solution

Effective and coordinated implementation of conservation plan to ensure survival of the Irrawaddy dolphin population.

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