In a Khmer fable, the dolphin originated from a woman who threw herself into the river, escaping disgrace, according to a new World Wide Fund for Nature report calling for protection of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong along the Lao border.
The report cautions that if the Mekong is to remain the dolphin refuge it was in fables, Laos must act immediately to extend a ban on gill nets and co-operate with Cambodia to control the use of boats and explosives for fishing in the area.
Only six dolphins remain in the deep pool that spans the southern edge of Laos and Cambodia’s Stung Treng province – down from dozens a few decades ago, the report says.
The remaining dolphins daily “risk entanglement and death in the many floating walls of nets,” according to Gerry Ryan, the report’s author and Technical Adviser with WWF-Cambodia.
Although Cambodia, probably home to more than 100 dolphins, recently banned gill nets and limited motorised boat travel in protected areas of the Mekong, Laos has moved more slowly, said Touch Seang Tana, chair of the Mekong River Dolphin Conservation and Eco-Tourism Department.
“They recognise the importance of protection but have different ideas and interests,” he said, citing Laos’s construction of the Xayaburi dam.
Dr Victor Cowling of WWF-Laos said he did not know if the Lao government would adopt WWF’s recommendations but hoped “they will act once aware how serious the situation is”.
In addition to collaborating on negotiations with Laos, the Cambodian government and WWF are working together to help balance fishermen’s livelihoods with dolphin protection, Tana said.
These moves include spreading alternative fishing techniques and mediating discussions about a proposed pier at Stung Treng’s Anlung Cheuteal village in light of concerns it would harm dolphins.
Due to this work and to tourism, protecting dolphins is giving villagers a financial boost, Tana and WWF officials said.
“In Cambodia, visitors to one of the two main dolphin-watching sites have increased nearly 30-fold since 2005,” WWF’s press release notes.