From Foe to Friend

[Side bar story to: Fishing for a Future]

Irrawaddy DolphinPHNOM PENH –  At one point in the last decade, these shy, gentle creatures were dying at a rate of one a month in the Mekong River, most of them victims of gillnets left in the water by local fisherfolk. But now the Irrawaddy dolphins are being guarded by no less than fishers themselves, and indications are the move is paying off for both man and animal.

“It’s the first river guard service anywhere in the world,” says Dr Touch Seang Tana, chairman of the state-run Commission for Mekong River Dolphin Conservation and Ecotourism Development. Begun in May 2006, the project was set up in Cambodia’s northeast to monitor six dolphin conservation zones along the Mekong River,  which has long been home to a subpopulation of the marine mammal that is also known as the Mekong River dolphin or Orcaella brevirostris.

Dark grey in colour with a paler underbelly, the Irrawaddy dolphin has a bulging forehead, a short, blunt beak, and a small dorsal fin. Adults measure between 180 to 275 cms in length, including the head. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the species can be found primarily “in Southeast Asian estuaries and mangrove areas, with freshwater populations occurring in river systems”, such as the Mekong. As late as three generations ago, even Tonle Sap Lake had Irrawaddy dolphins. Subpopulations can also be found these days in Mahakam River, Indonesia; Malampaya Sound, Philippines; Irrawaddy River, Burma; and the coastal waters and Sundarbans mangrove forests of Bangladesh.

The steepest decline in the Irrawaddy dolphin population in the Mekong River probably happened during the reign of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when, the Water Environment Partnership in Asia (WEPA) says,  Pol Pot’s guerrillas hunted it. Then, continues WEPA, from 1980 to 1995, Khmer and Vietnamese soldiers used it for target practice from 1980 to 1995.

But the dolphins were not safe even after peace returned to Cambodia, the main threats to the animals being fishers who resorted to gill nets and seine nets to ensure a bigger harvest of fish – and ended up having dolphins along with their catch.  A fewer number of fishers used electricity and dynamites to catch fish, but also wound up killing dolphins. In 2003 and 2004 alone,  at least 32 dolphin carcasses were recovered from the Mekong.

Today there are 15 river guard stations along a 180-km stretch of the Mekong between Kratie province and the Laos-Cambodia border. In all there are 77 river guards who take turns to monitor and protect the area from harmful fishing practices, including gill-net and seine fishing, which are believed to be the main reasons for the fast decline in the Irrawaddy-dolphin population.

Dr. Seang Tana, who has done extensive research on the Irrawaddy dolphin, says that at the start of the project six years ago, government deputies and local fishers shared its management on a 50-50 percent ratio. Half of the 72 river guards recruited at the time were local villagers from Kratie and Stung Treng Stung Treng is located in Stung Treng Province, Cambodia.

Stung Treng is located on a high sandy bank overlooking the Mekong River, where it is joined by the Se Kong river. provinces – about 158 and 249 kms northeast of Phnom Penh, respectively. The rest were policemen, soldiers, military policemen and fisheries officers stationed in the area, according to earlier news reports.

Through the years, though, local folk have taken on increasing responsibility.

“Government officers have been gradually replaced by local villagers,” says Seang Tana. Now only 20 percent of the project’s manpower is from government and the rest are local people, and most of the head river guards are local fishers. “The most important thing is to give power to local people,” says the commission chairman in an interview in the capital.

But he says that the villagers still need to maintain coordination with the government, and some degree of supervision. “I don’t want to say corruption,” says Seang Tana,  “but it will help us (keep the project) clean.”

He also stresses the importance of scientific information in the campaign to save the dolphins and to educate local fishers on what to do and what not to do. “Without scientific information, you cannot do conservation,” he says. “You need to know fish’s habits, where they spawn and then protect these places.”

Clear explanations why efforts like the dolphin project matter also go a long way in keeping the unarmed river guards safe and the initiative problem-free. As it is, the project has prompted resentment and met resistance from many fishers who say they can no longer earn as much as they had before because of it. Some of the river guards have also been quoted by the local media as saying that they have been threatened by their fellow villagers. Apparently, too, some fishers are still using gill nets; at least five dolphins died last year after getting entangled in such contraptions.

Still, the project has apparently spawned two Irrawaddy dolphin-watching locations in the Cambodian northeast, boosting tourism there. According to Touch Seang Tana, the region welcomed some 30,000 “dolphin tourists” in 2012, up from 20,000 in 2011 and the measly 50 in 2000.

The tourism ministry also says ecotourism destinations in Cambodia — the northeast provinces of Kratie, Stung Treng, Rattanakiri, and Mondulkiri — received 390,000 tourists in 2012, or an increase of almost 20 percent compared to the previous year.

“Local communities have benefited from entrance tickets and guide boats,” says Long Kheng, chief of the Ministry of Environment’s Multiple Use Are Wetland and Coastal Zone. More enterprising villagers have also taken to making and selling souvenirs, along with food and drinks. Thus, as far as Touch Seang Tana is concerned, the dolphin protection and conservation project has  “created green jobs for local people and encourage them to protect dolphins”.

WWF estimates that there are some 80 Irrawaddy dolphins currently in the Mekong, But Seang Tana says more dolphins are being born each year.  “From 2010 to 2011, there were three more young dolphins,” he reports. “In the early of 2012, there were four more.” – Tran Thi Thuy Binh

Postscript:  In January 2013, Touch Seang Sana told an international newswire that the government planned to establish four manned outposts in Stung Treng province, the main area where fish reproduce and where the dolphins travel from Laos. It is also where illegal fishing is prevalent.