New research hopes to save Irrawaddy dolphins from extinction in the Mekong

Posted on abril, 30 2012

Chet Borei District, Kratie province – The Commission for Dolphin Conservation and Development of Mekong River Dolphin Ecotourism Zone, the Fisheries Administration of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and WWF are conducting a pilot research project using biopsy sampling within the dolphin area of Kampi Pool. This research, which is taking place from the 26th of April 2012 until the end of May, will provide critical information for conservation of the Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong River, both in Cambodia and the trans-boundary dolphin population shared with Lao PDR.

Carried out in collaboration with experts from US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the researchers will remotely collect tissue samples from three free-swimming dolphins in the Mekong. When conducted carefully by experienced researchers, biopsy sampling can be done safely and effectively, and is considered a standard dolphin research technique worldwide.

“We will dart the dolphins at about 15 meters distance using specially prepared biopsy darts. The darts are designed to protect the animals and cannot pierce beyond their thick blubber layer. Only a tiny amount of tissue is collected, but it is enough to provide a wealth of important information,” said Dr Robert Pitman, Research Team Leader with NOAA.

The collection of biopsy samples from the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin sub-population is very important to address questions regarding sex and reproductive state, population and social structure, and contaminant levels. All tissue collection will be monitored by a specialist dolphin veterinarian. As part of the survey process, tissue samples will be analysed in overseas laboratories.

“The information we obtain from this research is very valuable and will provide us with a better understanding about this iconic animal in order to determine proper conservation measures to conserve the remaining population from going extinct, and increase its number,” said H.E. Touch Seang Tana, Chairman of the Commission for Dolphin Conservation and Development of Mekong River Dolphin Ecotourism Zone.

The population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong is ranked as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, CITES Appendix 1, the highest international forms of threat ranking for endangered species, and is listed in Cambodia’s sub decree on identification of Endangered Fisheries Resources. The latest population estimate by WWF suggests fewer than 100 adult individuals remain in the river, and that the survival rate of dolphin calves is very low. There is evidence to suggest this population is in danger of extinction.

“The results of the research will provide valuable information to assist the Fisheries Administration to develop appropriate management responses to conserve this valuable species,” said Dr Nao Thuok, Director General of Fisheries Administration.

Entanglement in gillnets is recognized as the leading cause of death in adult dolphins. Gillnet fishing will be banned within core dolphin habitat zones by the Cambodian government’s new sub decree, due to take effect shortly. The cause of high levels of calf mortality however, remains unclear, and it is hoped that this biopsy survey work will help provide clues.

“We believe that conservation actions implemented by the Dolphin Commission, Fisheries Administration and WWF will provide a clearer understanding of the population and causes of calf mortality,” said Mr Seng Teak, Director of WWF-Cambodia.

For more information, contact:

Mr Asnarith Tep, communications manager, via email:  and telephone: 023 218 034

Additional information:

The current dolphin study reflects implementation of the Kratie Declaration on the Conservation of the Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphin signed in January 2012 by the Commission for Dolphin Conservation and Development of Mekong River Dolphin Ecotourism Zone, the Fisheries Administration and WWF at the conclusion of three days of meetings of national and international experts to discuss urgent conservation actions for the critically endangered Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin. The Declaration includes key recommendations for immediate conservation actions including: use new technology and methods to improve understanding of dolphin behaviour, population status, and causes of mortality; minimize or eliminate gillnet related mortality through effective law enforcement and monitoring; and more direct involvement of local communities in dolphin conservation.

A new government sub decree adopted early this year, restricts use of gillnets in the dolphin core zone of 190km between Kratie town and Laos border. The Irrawaddy dolphin is one of 58 endangered aquatic species in Cambodia and is fully protected under Cambodian and Lao Law.
This Irrawaddy dolphin was photographed swimming in the Mekong River when the WWF-Fisheries Administration's research team conducted photo-identification survey in March this year.
© WWF-Cambodia / Gerry Ryan