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Dolphins and development in Kratie


An Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong River ... local NGOs are concerned about the willingness of Kratie officials to follow perceived economic gain at the expense of the dolphins and villagers.

Development means different things to different people, observes Alex Diment, crossing

a steel bridge in Kampi village, the launching point for tourist boats visiting the

rare and somewhat shy Irrawaddy river dolphins of Kratie province.

On one hand, he explains, there's the development he is involved in - a small NGO

teaching local fishers new farming techniques if they stop the illegal gill-netting

that threatens the survival of the dolphins.

But there's another sort of development being talked about in Kratie, one that has

commune and provincial officials excited and conservationists worried.

Last month, a group of Singaporeans toured Kampi and the village on the riverbank

opposite, looking at the potential for volunteers from the Singapore International

Foundation (SIF) to help develop the area.

Kampi village is 13 km from Kratie town along a bumpy road that runs parallel to

the now vastly flooded Mekong River. The 130 families of Kampi are mostly poor fisherfolk

who have been forced by poverty into netting the waters of the deep pool nearby,

home to the largest single population of Mekong river dolphins.

Catching a glimpse of the dolphins is the main reason tourists stop in at Kratie,

and even during the rainy season up to 20 people a day are hiring boats from Kampi,

say operators.

The upgrade of the road linking Kampi to Kratie - a provincial government initiative

that began last month - and a dramatic rise in property values recently has locals

wondering whether these Singaporeans could be the answer to their economic woes.

"Recently, Sombok commune has been lucky to receive big investment funds from

SIF to invest in a dolphin viewing site for tourists," said commune chief Him

Srong, who led the tour at the request of the provincial governor.

One student group has already visited to identify potential projects, but it is the

arrival of 16 top executives from a major international company in November that

is keenly awaited by Kratie officials.

The group has been dubbed "the 16 millionaires" by locals, who hope their

visit will kickstart a boom in Kratie, taking it from a modest stop on the eco-tourism

route to a mainstream mecca for foreign visitors with money to spend.

Srong was enthusiastic about the prospect of new hotels springing up in his commune,

providing employment opportunities for the residents.

"Also, we want to train the dolphins so that, for example, if you show a fish,

the dolphin will come and you don't need to take a boat," said Srong.

The idea of creating a dolphin-based theme park went "against the very grain

of eco-tourism" said Lawrence Anderson, Singapore's Ambassador to Cambodia,

who accompanied the SIF study tour.

Anderson explained that SIF organized various programmes for Singapore you groups

and corporate professionals to undertake community projects as part of personal development

and corporate team-building exercises.

The possible social services ranged from the donation of clothes to isolated villages

to assistance with health services, information technology and education; as well

as plans to construct a dolphin-viewing platform that would enable tourists to see

the animals in their natural habitat more safely.

He described talks with local officials as "very general" and said the

focus was on preserving the natural beauty of Kratie while improving tourists' access

to it.

The confusion over what the Singaporeans will be doing may have stemmed from the

perception that since the volunteers would include corporate professionals, there

could be economic spin offs.

"It's not so much investors... but more like adventure training, [but] it may

be that if they [corporate volunteers] like the programmme in Kratie, they might

consider 'adopting' or sponsoring some of the health care, education or eco-tourism

projects," he said.

However, two local NGOs are concerned about the willingness of Kratie officials to

follow perceived economic gain at the expense of the dolphins and villagers.

Commune chief Him Srong claims he was asked by the Singaporean delegation if some

of the villagers could be moved to make way for the expansion of the boat launching

site and told them they would probably agree if they were provided land, wells and

other infrastructure.

"They [SIF] asked me if there is other land available and I said, 'Plenty'."

Srong didn't know how many villagers may be relocated, but noted that 55 families

live on the river side of the road and that plots of land were available up to five

kilometers from the river.

"Actually there are some problems with this, because some people's occupation

is fishing and some people want to stay and fish," said Srong. "But not

all villagers are fishers, they can move their paddocks and farm somewhere else."

This is troubling news for the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT), who, after

two months spent gaining the support of villagers, are about to supply Kampi families

with start-up stocks of crops, pigs, chickens and fingerlings for fish ponds.

They have also promised a toilet for every household situated beyond the reach of

the river's flood zone, provided that locals respect the newly-enforced fishing laws

that ban gill nets and other illegal fishing methods in the vicinity of the rare


Tangible benefits like these are much sought after by Kampi residents, who say only

the seven families who operate the tourist boats (at $3 per dolphin-watcher) and

two others who sell drinks see any real rewards for conserving the dolphins.

"People are happy with the (CRDT) development project here but it seems like

a small project considering people are changing their habits from fishing to other

lifestyles," said Toy Sovanna, who was elected in late August to head the village

development committee (VDC).

Like other proud Kampi residents, he lists Kratie's dolphins as a close second to

Siem Reap's Angkor Wat in terms of tourist attractions and he understands the importance

of their survival if the village is to flourish.

"Now the area is of interest to national and international tourists because

of the dolphins [but] if one day the dolphins are extinct, this area and especially

this village won't be paid attention to again," said Sovanna.

The survival of these rare creatures is the primary concern for Isabel Beasley, a

researcher and conservationist who has become a world authority of the Irrawaddy

dolphin of the Mekong River.

"Tourism is a good thing for conservation because people can see a benefit from

conserving the dolphins," said Beasley. "But development needs to consider

that we have a very small population of dolphins and any development has to involve

the community."

She estimates that only 80 dolphins remain in the Mekong, and once that number drops

below 50, conservation efforts will become effectively useless.

Beasley was surprised that the Singaporeans have not consulted the NGO she started,

the Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project, considering that the endangered mammals

are the backbone of the tourism industry.

But Ambassador Anderson said SIF was committed to protecting the dolphins and that

Beasley was out of town when the delegation visited last month.

SIF was minful of the conservation emphasis in eco-tourism, he said, and had become

interested in the Kratie dolphins after being approached by Touch Seang Tana of the

Economic, Social and Cultural Observation Unit (OBSES), who had done extensive studies

on the dolphins and their habitat.

If local NGOs are sensitive to newcomers, it's because so much depends on the way

Kratie is developed.

"The next five years is crucial," said Isabel Beasley. "If nothing

effective is done and the mortality rates [of dolphins] continue as they are, they've

got probably 10 to 15 years [before extinction]."

Given this make or break situation for the dolphins, and thus the locals and tourism

industry by extension, all eyes will be on what brand of development local authorities

choose for Kratie.

On the edge of extinction

The Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the Mekong River will soon be officially listed

as critically endangered and may even be classified as a unique sub-species.
While there are no external differences between Mekong dolphins and other Asian Irrawaddy

dolphins, testing has indicated unique genetic traits, says researcher and conservationist

Isabel Beasley.

Irrawaddy dolphins are found in coastal waters throughout Southeast Asia as well

as in the Mekong (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam), Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy in Myanmar) and

Mahakam (Indonesia) river systems.

It's estimated that as few as 80 of the creatures survive in the Mekong after years

of over-fishing and hunting, including being used for target practice by Khmer Rouge

soldiers during the 1970s.

So far this year, twelve dolphin deaths have been recorded, chipping away at the

fragile population. Seven of these fatalities were newborn calves and three were

found with their malformed intestines, a genetic defect that Beasley suspects was

caused by environmental contamination.

In October the World Conservation Union is expected to recognize the Mekong Irrawaddy

dolphin as "critically endangered", meaning there are 50 mature dolphins

or fewer.

"Extinct is the next category," says Beasley.




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