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Cambodia’s Mekong dolphin is dying despite efforts to save it

Gangs of fishermen visit the river at night and the rangers do nothing to stop them.

Working in large groups, the boatmen use fishing methods that have long been banned on this part of the Mekong, one of Asia’s mightiest rivers, such as gillnetting, which uses nets that hang like a curtain on the water and catch the fish by the gills, and electric fishing.

Normally, the rangers would intervene. But these days they are left behind by a mixture of intimidation and sympathy for neighbors made desperate by the pandemic.

Cambodia’s strict fishing rules, first imposed in 2006, are crucial to the Mekong dolphin’s fortunes, giving this rare but nationally beloved animal a chance to survive after decades of population decline.

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But while dolphin conservation is wildly popular in Cambodia’s poor riverside communities, and some earn money from the visitors they bring, the economic strains of the pandemic when borders were closed for months forced some to desperate measures to feed their families.

“We are trying to protect the dolphins, but criminals are also catching them,” said Sun Koeung, 63, who can earn up to $15 a day by taking people out to the water to watch the dolphins.

He says the illegal fishing crews arrive at the river at 11pm, an hour after the River Guards have completed their shift.

“If we lose dolphins, there is no revenue at all,” he added.

Illegal activity, hidden in plain sight, helps explain why Mekong dolphin populations are struggling despite nearly two decades of work to maintain them.

A boat full of tourists set out for the Mekong hoping to catch a glimpse of the Mekong dolphin.  People are wearing life jackets and the boat is uncovered.  There are other boats moored along the shore behind them.
People in the local community made money by taking visitors to the river, but the pandemic wiped out tourism and many were forced to find new ways to feed their families. [File: Heng Sinith/Reuters]

The Mekong dolphin is a subgroup of the Irrawaddy dolphin, a species found throughout Asia. Its distinctive mouth gives it the appearance of a smile, and its intelligence and playfulness have charmed humans for generations. Riverside communities in Laos and Cambodia revere dolphins as reincarnated ancestors.

Thousands of these dolphins once lived in the waters of the Mekong, which flows from China through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Today, an estimated 89 dolphins in Cambodia are all that remains.

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High mortality rates, especially among baby dolphins, have conservationists fearing for their future. There is little room for error as dolphins only breed every two to three years.

“In 2009, we thought we were really going to make a difference,” said Randall Reeves, an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) affiliated scientist and adviser to the Cambodia program. “I don’t feel like we really did it.”

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The dolphin story is just one of the millions that make up the global biodiversity crisis when governments sit down this week to discuss new biodiversity targets at the long-delayed COP15 in Montreal. Without action, a million species of plants and animals face extinction within decades, scientists warn.

However, the recovery of some iconic species, such as bald eagles in the United States, pandas in China and tigers in South Asia, show that targeted and politically backed plans can pay off.

It was in that spirit that Cambodia and Laos partnered with IUCN and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to save the Mekong dolphin more than 10 years ago.

Early conservation efforts

In Cambodia, the dolphins had a powerful champion in Touch Seang Tana, a career fishing expert who called them symbols of “national heritage” and made their protection a personal cause.

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Once a rock star in a popular Cambodian band, the colorful Tana rose through the bureaucratic ranks to join the Council of Ministers, the cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In 2006, he assumed a prestigious position, head of the Cambodian Dolphin Commission, with responsibility for overseeing the recovery plan.

Tana framed dolphin conservation as a fisheries issue and favored a strong hand in controlling it.

That year, Cambodia banned gillnetting in the dolphins’ favorite areas. To enforce the ban, he established the River Guards, a team to patrol the water and seize illegal fishing gear. With the help of foreign funds, the team was expanded to 72 rangers equipped with speedboats, smartphones, night vision goggles and a drone.

By 2017, the measures seemed to be working: the dolphin population had increased from 80 to 92.

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But there were also problems.

Some river communities had come to resent strict fishing rules being enforced in the absence of any attempt to develop alternative livelihoods, said Isabel Beasley, a scientist who began fieldwork on the Mekong dolphin in 1997.

To feed their families, some bribed River Guards to look the other way, he said.

Some even buried dead dolphins they found, fearing punishment, according to two former WWF officials.

According to a joint report from the project partners, the program did not record a number of deaths in 2009, 2012 and 2014.

But in Cambodia’s hierarchical political culture, pointing out these problems would have been seen as undermining Tana, who insisted that the main problem was gillnetting, even as poverty, the root cause of illegal fishing, persisted.

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A fisherman casts his net into the Mekong.  He is silhouetted against the dawn sky and is standing on the bow of his small boat.
Net fishing was banned as part of an attempt to save the dolphin [File: Chor Sokunthea/Reuters]

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Tana said that people living in the river villages were given tractors and water pumps so they could supplement their income by farming.

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“I gave satellite TVs to each town, two or three of them so they can come together to watch the media. They were happy,” he said. “You can’t just use the regulations and the law. Social negotiation must be strengthened, that is the most important thing”.

He accuses foreign NGOs of sometimes exaggerating dolphin deaths and estimated that in 2014, the year he retired, the population was 220.

He denies that the dolphin deaths have been overlooked, pointing to strong monitoring by WWF and researchers.

“NGOs are good. Like WWF,” Tana said. “But the people who work for NGOs are human,” she said. “Some people want to be a great man. ‘I am the great NGO or world organization. I have to control everything, you have to follow me.’ No. This I cannot accept.

development is king

On the border between Laos and Cambodia, where the Mekong widens into a great river pool, the situation for the dolphins was even more dire.

By 2012, this “cross-border” population had dwindled to six, a group so small that it could only survive through intense protection.

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Lao officials supported the dolphins in principle. Laos’ own endangered species list gave Mekong dolphins the highest level of protection under the law.

But in practice, Lao officials “seemed hesitant to commit” to matching Cambodia’s strict fisheries controls, said Somany Phay, an official with the Cambodian Fisheries Administration who tried to coordinate the strategy with Laos.

“People in Laos considered it a sensitive issue,” he said.

The dolphins’ habitat overlapped with a resource of national interest: energy.

In 201, Laos approved the Don Sahong Dam, a project to send power to Cambodia. Laos has built dozens of dams as part of a national strategy to export electricity.

WWF pleaded with Laos to reconsider, saying construction of the dam would damage the dolphins’ sensitive hearing structures, and would “almost certainly” kill the last six.

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Regardless, the dam became operational in 2020.

Last February, WWF-Laos confirmed the death of the last survivor, whom some called “Lone George”.

For some, it was a stark reminder that while conservation was important, ultimately development was king.

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“They are proud of the dolphins,” sighed an concerned official from the Lao side. “But they won’t put resources into it.” The source declined to be named for fear of repercussions in the closely controlled country.

A wall of banners and posters addressed to Mega First, the Malaysian company that built the Don Sahong Dam.  The signs include big red 'stop' signs and words like 'face up to your responsibilities' and 'mega disaster'.  An activist on the right holds a giant fish and one on the left holds a giant Mekong dolphin.
The Don Sahong Dam was completed despite an open campaign to stop its construction during which a quarter of a million people signed a petition against it. [File: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP]

The mystery of the dead dolphins

While Cambodian policies have kept adult dolphins alive, high baby deaths continue to baffle scientists.

Eight calves were born in 2020 but four died, according to a report.

The typical life expectancy for dolphins is 27 to 30 years. Of the current population, 70 percent is over the age of 20, according to WWF.

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Over the years, corpses of newborns have been found with signs scientists consider ambiguous or even mysterious: skull fractures, blue lesions around the throat, and sometimes no visible signs of damage.

Samples of teeth and tissue were sent to laboratories in the US, necropsies of dozens of bodies were performed, and genetic and bacterial cultures were analyzed, among the many efforts to solve this mystery.

None have provided a clear answer, said Frances Gulland, chairwoman of the US Marine Mammal Commission and a longtime adviser to the Cambodian program.

Gulland noted the small sample sizes, only two to seven specimens per year, and inadequate local infrastructure to receive fresh, intact bodies for analysis. “These animals are sometimes liquid” when they get to the lab, he said.

Next month, she and a small team of scientists will visit Cambodia to reinforce lagging aspects of the program and begin work on a new population estimate.

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But critics say the dolphin project is emblematic of IUCN’s weaknesses.

IUCN scientists are unpaid volunteers and are typically only able to spend a small amount of time on field visits.

“What are your achievements? Just workshops,” said Verné Dove, a field veterinarian who participated in the program from 2006 to 2011 and has just published a dissertation attributing infant deaths to the disease.

“There just comes a time when you have to do something.”

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