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The Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong river are a Critically Endangered sub-species of dolphin. There are around 5000 globally, but in the isolated population found in a 190km section of the Mekong, through Laos and Cambodia, there are fewer than 85.
These dolphins have a lot in common with my friends back home, Hong Kong's pink dolphins. They are an isolated population of rare dolphin that frankly do not have long to survive.
I visited a pod of 20 that lives near Kampi, in Kratie province, Cambodia.
These dolphin tours are managed by the Cambodian government, which in the past has been facilitated by various NGOs who have tried to help with providing eco-tourist income to the local villagers and increasing the awareness of the dolphins plight, as a way of trying to protect the dolphins from one of their main threats: accidentally being caught in local villagers' fishing nets.
To encourage less fishing while introducing an alternative income to the local community, dolphin watching by rowing boat was suggested, and materials were provided to teach tourists about the dolphins. These gave way to an increasing number of motor boats, many of which would chase the dolphins to get close for their paying tourists.
Later, guidelines were introduced and I'm glad to say were adhered to by the boat drivers. I didn't witness any drivers chasing the dolphins, and within around 100m they never used their motors, paddling with oars instead.
For a long time the tell-tale puff of a blowhole could be heard, but the Mekong dolphins are much more shy than their cousins, and I could only catch a fleeting glimpse.
That was, until I saw this character. You can tell him apart from his family thanks to his distinctive dorsal fin shape (possibly due to injury). This dolphin was such a character he needs a nickname so I'm going to call him Dolphin Lundgren.
Lundgren came much closer than the other dolphins and was far less shy than the rest of his pod. In fact, in all the time I spent with them, he was the only one who showed his fluke and flippers, or breached the surface with any confidence.
All dolphins have the "great deception" as Rick O'Barry calls it: the impression that they are smiling. But Irrawaddy dolphins look even more like they are smiling with their big melon heads and mouths that turn up at the sides.
Lundgren, however, really looked like he was having fun. He swam in circles and tried to jump over his pod mates, and was displaying a wild behaviour unique to this sub-species: spitting jets of water (this is thought to be used to help them catch fish).
He put on a great show for what it usually one of the more reserved dolphin species.
Like humans, dolphins usually have one baby at a time, and have a long gestation period. This means the population doesn't grow quickly. Meanwhile, this Mekong population of 70+ is facing many threats. A common cause of death for these mammals comes from being caught in fishing nets. While commercial fishing is no longer allowed, local families rely on fishing to survive, so subsistence fishing is still allowed. Aside from the nets, over-fishing of the small pools throughout the Mekong during the dry season also means increasing competition for food.
There is also boat traffic, as you can see from the scars on the back of many of the dolphins, from boat hulls and propellers.
Another parallel to HK's dolphins and the new Macau-HK bridge, there is the huge threat of the new Don Sahong Dam proposed just upriver across the border in Laos. Dolphins are extremely sensitive to noise, and the construction and explosive stone mining for the dam may cause death from stress or beaching, not to mention the increased boat traffic. If the dolphins survive the construction, the dam will be blocking what is currently known to be the only fish migration route in that area of the Mekong, meaning the fish would soon disappear for both the people and the dolphins.
International NGOs have added their voices to the Cambodian governments objections to this dam, but it remains to be seen if their voices will be heard.
Is tourism is helping the dolphins? In Kampi, some reports say that there are only 7 village families allowed to operate the boats and therefore benefit from the dolphin tourism in Kampi. Other families are not only prevented from benefiting from the tourism, but are also prevented from fishing in the area.
While it is important to protect these precious animals (and eco-tourism is often a great way to help), it is just as important to protect the livelihood of the people who live there, and provide alternative sources of income. You can find out more at the Cambodian Rural Development Team work in this area to help ensure both the dolphins and the people of Kampi can prosper.
As the dolphins head off to fish in a 'no-go' area of the Kampi pool, where the boats know to leave the dolphins alone, the boat heads back to shore.
Hundreds of cormorants begin to skim the water, flying South and raising just overhead as they pass by. They too rely on the mighty Mekong, as do hundreds of other species. I head North leaving the birds and the dolphins behind. I will head off for next month in search of yet another Critically Endangered Mekong species that faces the same threats, and the charity that is dedicated to helping them.
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