Irrawaddy dolphins live in both saltwater and freshwater in South and Southeast Asia. They are widespread in coastal areas, but they now only survive in three rivers – the Mekong in Cambodia and Lao PDR, the Mahakam in Indonesia, and the Ayeyarwaddy in Myanmar. The population in each of these rivers is thought to be less than 100 dolphins and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species describes these three river populations as Critically Endangered.
The population in the Mekong is estimated to be 75 adults. Research shows that the population is slowly declining and the mortality rate is unsustainably high. In the last 10 years at least 115 dolphins have died, an average of nearly one per month. Fishermen along the Mekong use gillnets to fish and unfortunately dolphins are occasionally caught in them as bycatch. The purpose of this project is to reduce the number of dolphins that die in gillnets each year.
In 2006 the Cambodian government created the Dolphin Commission to protect Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River. The Dolphin Commission now has 17 ranger posts along the river and more than 70 rangers patrolling the river to prevent the use of gillnets in dolphin protection zones. This grant from SOS - Save Our Species will enable the project team to provide training, equipment, and fuel to allow more frequent and effective ranger patrols. The rangers have to patrol nearly 200 km of river, often at night, so they have a difficult and dangerous job. This grant will provide them with radios, GPS units, cameras, and other needed equipment.
The Cambodian government recently passed a law preventing the use of gillnets in large stretches of the Mekong River. This was an important step toward the conservation of dolphins, but the new law must be backed up with strong enforcement by rangers and supported by local communities. The project team is working with local NGOs in Cambodia to conduct education and outreach about dolphin conservation and to provide fishermen alternative ways to find food and income so they are not so dependent on using gillnets.
The overall goal of this project is to stop the decline and eventually increase the population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River. The mortality rate of nearly one dolphin per month, must be reduced if this population is to recover.
The first step toward achieving this is by eliminating dolphin deaths in gillnets in 2013 and 2014, the period supported by this grant. To achieve that the project team will provide training, equipment, and supplies to more than 70 rangers in 17 posts along the Mekong River.