In Cambodia, we did a homestay (like we did in the Mekong Delta, in Vietnam). Jamie did a video post about our homestay, which you can see here. We learned a lot about how local families live, and even went to a Cambodian wedding. And, we made a stop to see the Irrawaddy river dolphins nearby.
Irrawaddy river dolphins are found in Southeast Asia, in coastal areas and in three rivers. One of these rivers is the Mekong, which flows through Cambodia on its way to the sea. Click here for a map of the Mekong.
Irrawaddy river dolphins can reach 2.75 meters (about 9 feet long). They have blunt, rounded noses — as opposed to the pointy noises of bottlenose dolphins. (Did you know that all dolphins are part of a group called cetaceans? Aquatic mammals including dolphins, whales and porpoises are all cetaceans.)
Unlike most dolphins, which live only in salt water, Irrawaddy river dolphins can live in either fresh water or salt water. Because they live in the river, which is a confined area, they’re especially affected by human activity.
In the Mekong there are likely between 78 and 91 individual dolphins left. The Mekong River population is listed as Critically Endangered.
The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) has identified Irrawaddy river dolphins as a “flagship species” — which means that they reflect the health of the river for other species. In other words, if the dolphins are doing well — with clean water and plenty of fish — other species will, too (including humans).
Threats to Dolphins
A major threat to dolphins has been fishing. Fishing with gillnets (long, rectangular mesh nets) has trapped and killed dolphins. In 2012, the country passed a law prohibiting gillnets in large stretches of the Mekong (although fishing in other ways is still allowed).
As we researched this post, we learned that tourism is another activity that has impacted the dolphins. One problem is noise and activity from tourist boats. Although there used to be some rules about where tourist boats could go, it seems that at the moment, dolphin tourism is fairly unregulated.
However, the dolphins are important to the local community and economy. 20,000 tourists visited the dolphins in 2011 — which means that tour boats, hotels, restaurants and local artisans all benefit.
Conservation programs to protect the dolphins have been created, starting in 2003 — by both NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and the government. In one brief visit, it’s hard to see and understand all the human impacts and issues, but it seems that some programs have been more successful than others. The most successful programs have enlisted local people in dolphin conservation, and found benefits for the local community in the process.
There’s also another potential threat: a new dam on the Mekong River is being planned by Laos, a country bordering Cambodia. The dam would be in an area upstream of the dolphins. If the project goes through, it will certainly impact the dolphins. According to WWF, some dolphins would be killed by sound waves from explosives. The rest would suffer due to the dam’s effects on water quality.
The Irrawaddy river dolphin’s future is uncertain. But with continued work from WWF and other organizations, it’s hopeful that this remarkable species will continue to survive.
Endangered? How Do We Know?
When you see something listed as endangered, do you know where that information comes from? It comes from the IUCN — the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It’s the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, based in Switzerland.
The IUCN publishes the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which helps identify endangered species. The IUCN currently monitors 71,576 animal and plant species! Thousands of scientists and experts help maintain the list, which provides valuable information to help monitor specific species. The Red List also helps identify global trends and set conservation priorities — so organizations can decide what kinds of conservation actions to take based on the best available research.
The list puts threatened species in one of three categories: Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. Species can also be listed as Extinct or Extinct in the Wild. Other species at lower risk are classified as Near Threatened or Least Concern.
The IUCN also has other initiatives – such as the Save Our Species fund (which recently gave WWF a grant to help equip and train rangers to monitor gillnet fishing in the Mekong). IUCN’s Mangroves for the Future program helps protect coastal ecosystems. And its Water and Nature Initiative works with governments and local communities to manage water resources. This includes sustainable use of water, but also aims to help reduce poverty by improving access to water for all communities.
Study Guide Questions
1. Name 3 different kinds of cetaceans.
2. True or False: Irrawaddy dolphins live only in rivers.
3. What is the endangered status of the Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong river?
4. What is a flagship species?
5. If there are no animals of a certain species in the wild, but there are some in zoos, then what would its endangered classification be?