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Deaths of rare dolphins raise extinction fears

Deaths of rare dolphins raise extinction fears

Dolphin.jpg
Dolphin.jpg

A one-week-old dolphin calf that died in the Mekong in Kratie province in September 2002 of unknown causes.

T

he deaths of four endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River over the past

six months has led conservationists to warn the species could die out in Cambodia

unless urgent protection measures are taken.

Isabel Beasley, an affiliate researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said

the rate of deaths was alarming in a population that could be as low as just 70 individuals.

"The recent mortality levels indicate the population is heading towards local

extinction unless urgent conservation and management measures are put in place,"

she said. "The population is so small that basically, in order for it to sustain

itself into the future, there cannot be any more mortalities."

Irrawaddy dolphins are regarded by local conservationists and the government as rare

and endangered. In May 2001 dry season researchers observed 67 dolphins in the Mekong.

One year later that had dropped to just 54.

Beasley said the most immediate threat facing the Irrawaddys was entanglement in

fishermen's gillnets. Three of the dolphins were trapped in gillnets. The cause of

death of the other, a one-week old dolphin calf, is not known.

"Now that the human population is increasing and fishing is increasing, it is

likely that by-catch is also increasing," she said, explaining that the logging

concession bans had forced many people to fish for a living, putting further pressure

on fishery resources.

In order to protect the dolphins, the government is looking at drafting a Royal Decree

later this year. The law will establish three sanctuaries in which all fishing will

be prohibited.

Dr Touch Seng Tana at the Council of Ministers said it was hard to predict precisely

how much danger the dolphins were in, but said they did need to be protected.

"This species is very rare because they want to live in very small groups,"

he said. "We want to set up a sanctuary to protect the dolphins in three locations

- in Kratie province, Stung Treng province, and on the border between Kratie and

Stung Treng."

The dolphins currently inhabit a stretch of about 190 kilometers of the Mekong, from

Kratie province to the Laos border. Beasley has identified nine critical areas along

the river, and said a coordinated effort by local authorities, police and conservationists

was needed to conserve these habitats.

However Sam Kim Lorn, the director of the Kratie fisheries department, said a lack

of funding, boats and gasoline made it difficult to properly police dolphin-inhabited

areas to prevent illegal fishing.

"Due to this lack of means, we only visit the areas about twice a week,"

Kim Lorn said. "[But] I plan that fishery officials should be permanent at the

area since there are crimes at night when the fishermen used electrical wire to shock

fish, or netting."

He added that most fishermen were aware of the need to protect the dolphins, and

said the deaths were down to actions of a selfish few.

Beasley said she was hopeful the population would survive, provided the protection

measures were put in place.

"There is still a good chance for conservation to be effective because we are

still seeing calves and the Mekong River is in a relatively undisturbed state,"

she said.

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