Study shows urgent action needed to avoid extinction of Mekong dolphins

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Dolphin mother with its calve is playing in Koh Pdao, Kratie province © WWF-Cambodia, Tan Somet Bunwath

New research from WWF has shown that Mekong dolphins are "at high risk of extinction". Although fully protected under Cambodian and Lao PDR legislation, the population is ranked as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, the highest international threat ranking for endangered species.

There are just 85 dolphins in the Mekong River, and with calf survival very low, this already small population is declining. The factors behind the high calf mortality are as yet unknown.

The Irrawaddy dolphin is regarded as a sacred animal by both Khmer and Lao people, and is an important source of income and jobs for communities involved in dolphin-watching ecotourism initiatives.

The species is found in coastal areas in South and Southeast Asia, and in three rivers, the Ayeyarwady (Myanmar), the Mahakam (Indonesian Borneo) and the Mekong. All riverine populations are red-listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, and the species in general is listed as vulnerable.

Photographic identification of the Mekong dolphins through individually unique features of their dorsal fins enables researchers to estimate the population size. Surveys conducted from 2007 to 2010 confirm the population is slowly declining.

“With a larger dataset and recent analytical advances, previously unidentifiable dolphins which had few marks on their dorsal fins have been included,” said Dr. Li Lifeng, Director of WWF’s Freshwater Programme. “Evidence is strong that very few young animals survive to adulthood, as older dolphins die off and are not replaced."

“This tiny population is at high risk by its small size alone. With the added pressures of gill net entanglement and high calf mortality we are really worried for the future of dolphins,” Dr. Li said.

“Our best chance of saving this iconic species from extinction in the Mekong River is through joint conservation action,” said Dr. Li. “WWF is committed to working with the Fisheries Administration, the Dolphin Commission, and communities all along the river to reverse the decline and ensure the survival of this beautiful species in the Mekong.”

WWF is asking the government of Cambodia to establish a clear legislative framework to protect dolphins in Cambodia. This should include the designation of dolphin conservation zones and should allow a ban or limit on the use of gillnets where needed. Doing so will require formalizing special legislation to protect dolphins or amendments to existing Fishery Law.

Mekong Dolphin Conservation in Cambodia
WWF is implementing the Cambodian Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project in collaboration with the Fisheries Administration and the Cambodian Rural Development Team. The project conducts research on the dolphin population and causes of mortality, environmental education, and alternative livelihood development for local communities in dolphin habitat areas.

Each year, the Cambodian Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project conducts at least two population surveys of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River. The current population estimate is based on 11 surveys from 2007-2010, usually conducted in March to May when dolphins congregate around deep pool areas in the low water.

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