Conserving Endangered Mekong River Dolphins

A group of international scientists have agreed to take measures to protect the critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong River.

During a meeting overseen by Dr Nao Thuok, Director General of the Fisheries Administration, the team of experts discussed the 2012 Kratie Declaration to see how effective conservation measures have been to date.

The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin is critically endangered, with Fisheries Administration and WWF studies estimating between 78 and 91 animals remain in the river. There is also 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,” says Thuok.

“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 have joined forces to focus on minimising gillnet-related deaths and other pressures on the species from illegal fishing activities. This will be carried out through law enforcement and monitoring dolphin behaviour and population

Through a new dolphin protected area sub-decree, the Royal Cambodian Government banned the use of gillnets within core dolphin zones over a 180km stretch of river between Kratie town and the Laos border to prevent accidental catching of dolphins.

“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,” says H.E. Khan Chamnan, Deputy Governor of Kratie.

Chhith Sam Ath, Country Director of WWF in Cambodia, adds, “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,”

Fears that proposed mainstream dams on the Mekong River, including the Don Sahong project, pose a major risk to the river’s dolphins were also raised at the meeting.

“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 agreed to implement a 10-year moratorium on mainstream dams pending completion of a series of independent studies.