Mekong Utility Watch

Many work to save Mekong dolphins

Associated Press
June 15, 1998

KAMPI, Cambodia — Once upon a time, a beautiful maiden forced by her parents to marry a slimy python leapt into the Mekong River. But her suicide bid failed. She was transformed into a dolphin.  Only the aging still relate this legend, and only they remember the days when thousands of these creatures with a square, human-like face and perpetual smile plied Cambodia’s waters.

Today, this remote riverside village is one of the only places along the 4,200-kilometer (2,600-mile) Mekong where one still sees the aquatic mammals, emerging from deep pools before sunset to play and hunt along the water’s surface.

Although systematic surveys have yet to be conducted, experts believe no more than 100 of the Irrawaddy dolphins survive in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Diminishing in numbers everywhere, this dolphin species inhabits coastal and freshwater areas ranging from northern Australia to the Bay of Bengal. The bluish-grey animals grow to 2.75 meters (9 feet), living in groups of four to eight.

“The fate of the dolphin is very symbolic of the whole problem of large-scale development of the Mekong,” says Ian Baird, a Canadian who runs a grassroots project in southern Laos that promotes sustainable fishing.

There are scattered reports of killings by drunk soldiers, fishermen angry the dolphins gobbled up too many fish in their area and superstitious villagers who regard them as evil water ghosts.

During the mid-1970s, hundreds were slaughtered in Cambodia’s Great Lake by the ultra-radical Khmer Rouge, who extracted oil from their skins, according to fisheries expert Touch Sieng Thana, who says just two were spotted earlier this year in the lake.

But traditionally the dolphin was neither hunted nor its meat eaten. Some Cambodians believe they’ll never catch another fish if they touch the animal. In Laos, fisherfolk tell of dolphins saving humans from the jaws of crocodiles.

Dolphins have genearlly fallen victim to perils depleting one of the world’s most bio-diverse river systems: use of explosives, electric shock, poison and gillnets for fishing, growing pollution and construction of dams.

Choosing these enchanting, snub-nosed animals as a “flagship species,” Baird, a Japanese conservation group and the Australia-based Community Aid Abroad hope to preserve both the dolphin and the Mekong’s more than 1,000 other species.

“Villagers know fish will soon disappear if explosives and electric shock continue to be used. But they don’t know what to do,” says Phong Choun, country director for the private Australian group, which works with 11 riverside villages to husband local resources.

While admittedly difficult to stop the chief culprits — the powerful military — Phong Choun says his organization is helping villagers formulate local regulations. Caught a second time for illegal fishing methods, the guilty in one community are fined 50,000 riels (dlrs 14) multiplied their body weight in kilograms.

“Save the dolphin” t-shirts have been distributed along with cartoons illustrating how the creatures can become entangled in nets or injured by propellers. Saving the Mekong’s bounty is discussed in classrooms and village meetings.

Baird, who is advising the Cambodia project, began a similar one five years ago among the islands and spectacular Khone Falls near the Laos-Cambodia frontier. Now, he says, some fishermen are close to tears when a dolphin accidentally perishes.

“It’s very indicative that the villagers want the survival of the dolphin,” he says. “They see them as friends, and want them to be there for their children.”

Meanwhile, a group of Japanese businessmen, academics and wildlife experts are raising funds for a dolphin research center in this community 180 kilometers (112 miles) northeast of the capital Phnom Penh.

Katsutoshi Shintani, member of the Human-Animal Bond for the 21st Century, said foreign researchers would come for limited stays but the center will be run by Cambodians.

HAB21 was started by banker Keiichi Iwashige, who remembered watching dolphins as a youth off his native island of Kagoshima in southern Japan — before pollution drove them away.

Iwashige’s group, which focuses on the plight of the dolphin and other species in Japan, visited Kampi last December and hopes to begin construction by year’s end, Shintani said.

“The dolphins are a kind of symbol,” he said. “If we can live together with dolphins it signifies that there can exist a cleaner, better environment in our world.”

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