“NO dolphins, no tourism.” The message from Kratie’s governor, Khan Phoeun, could not be any clearer. You get the sense it is one he has rehearsed in front of the mirror several times over the years. “The majority of the tourists come here to see the dolphins and the people living along the river.”
With tourism having grown by more than 10 percent each year since 2007, the fate of those “living along the river” has become intertwined with that of one of the world’s most endangered creatures, the Irrawaddy Dolphin.
Since 2007 there has been a concerted attempt to protect the dolphins in their natural habitat through restricting local fishing practices. Despite this, the plight of the freshwater dolphin remains precarious.
“There has been an effort to reduce the use of gill nets in and around dolphin pools,” says Gordon Congdon, Freshwater Conservation Manager, World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “This appears to have reduced mortality, but some dolphins are still dying in gill nets and this remains a significant problem.”
Congdon claims research by Fisheries Administration (FIA) and WWF indicates that there are probably less than 100 dolphins in the river. According to this research at least 39 dolphins have died since the beginning of 2007.
“There are enough animals for the population to recover, but the mortality rate is still too high,” says Congdon. “Further measures are needed to reduce this.” Of particular concern is the low survival rate of dolphin calves.
Deap Kuy, 31, is one of the people tasked with saving the dolphin from extinction. Before becoming a river guard in 2006 he was a fisherman.
“Since they started to protect dolphins, all the fishing tools became illegal,” says Kuy. “So I joined in the protection.”
While still a fisherman, Kuy would cast gill nets to catch fish. Occasionally a dolphin would become ensnared in one and die. Now he confiscates the nets of anyone transcending the rules.
“We did not understand about protection then,” he says. “It was only when they started to protect the dolphin that we learned they were important.”
Kuy is one of five guards at his post a kilometre up-river from the Kampi rapids. It is one of 10 posts protecting the area from Kratie to Steung Treng.
“In the early days of the protective zone it was more difficult,” he says. “Now people understand the importance of protecting dolphins and there are few fishing nets.” The last time Kuy confiscated a net was two months ago.
Although Kuy earned more money while fishing, he realises that the benefits from that line of work are short-lived.
“Right now I don’t like fishing, because it only feeds us one time, it doesn’t change our lives,” he says. “We have to change from illegal to legal fishing.”
Tuy Sovanna has been selling wooden souvenirs at her stall beside Kampi Rapids for a year now. Dolphin key rings, dolphin pen holders, dolphin toothpick holders and large dolphin sculptures are offered to the many tourists who come here to catch a glimpse of the freshwater mammal in the flesh.
“I started selling here because I realised that both Cambodians and foreign tourists come here,” she says.
On really good days such as national holidays Sovanna can earn up to 500,000 to 600,000 riel, but on bad days she might take home a tenth of that figure.
“In the future, if we can protect the dolphin, this area will develop as a tourism area,” she says. “If the dolphins decrease our future is useless.”
The tourists come to Kampi for the relative ease of seeing dolphins. Although you can even see them from the banks of the river, most people choose to hire a boat, which costs $7 per person.
Oung Pov, 21, has been taking tourists out to the rapids for three years. One of 24 Kampi boatsman who work in strict rotation, he receives 15,000 for each trip regardless on the number of passengers he takes. The rest of the money goes to the community.
The boatsmen work in two groups so Pov only works two weeks out of four. The other two weeks he grows vegetables.
“It’s a good job in the dry season,” he says. “But in the rainy season there are very few tourists.” The best time for spotting dolphins is from November to May when there is less water.
Like Kuy, Pov used to fish, but he too gave it up when restrictions were imposed. “People still fish,” he says. “But not around the shallow water where the dolphins are. Now it’s better because they protect the area and more tourists come here.”
Governor Kham Phoeun is “strongly optimistic” about the future of tourism in Kratie. This future, as all seem to agree, is heavily reliant upon the survival of the Irrawaddy Dolphin. According to Congdon, the FIA and WWF will produce a report within the next couple of months outlining the current situation for the dolphins. The report’s findings could have a huge bearing upon the prospects of Oung Pov, Tuy Sovanna, Deap Kuy and all the others who rely upon tourism for their livelihoods.