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,
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
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
"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
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
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
"Extinct is the next category," says Beasley.