Boatman Cheng Nguan takes tourists to get a close-up view of the dolphins in the Mekong near Kampi, a few kilometers north of Kratie.
T he head of an environmental group's Irrawaddy dolphin preservation project has said that almost a fifth of the dwindling dolphin population is dying each year and the victims are predominantly newborn calves.
The specter of extinction was raised earlier this year when 14 dolphins - out of a population estimated at fewer than 100 - died within two months. According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) dolphin project manager Richard Zanre this is dangerously high, considering the current dolphin numbers.
"Going by the latest population estimate, annual deaths currently average 16-to-20 percent of the total population," Zanre said. "The mortality rate for such a small population of dolphins should be no more than 1 or 2 percent if they are to survive."
In 2004 it was estimated that only 80 to 100 Irrawaddy dolphins remained in the Mekong River. Once, these rare mammals could be seen throughout the Mekong River system as far as Phnom Penh and even in the waters of the Tonle Sap. Now, the small remaining band stays close together in a 190-km stretch of river between the town of Kratie and the Cambodian-Laotian border.
"When I was a child we would go to swim in the river and we would see many dolphins every time," said Lor Kim San, who has lived by the Mekong all his life. "Now there are no dolphins where I live."
Dolphin numbers rapidly decreased during the 1970s and 80s when, due to hardships, people where forced to hunt dolphins for food and oil. Soldiers commonly used them for target practice as they surfaced for air, the Post was told.
In recent years the biggest threat to the dolphin population has been unintentional killings caused by both legal and illegal fishing. According to the WWF, dynamiting, electric fishing, and the illegal use of gillnets in areas frequented by dolphins has claimed many casualties. Even some legal fishing methods can trap dolphins underwater, causing them to drown.
So far this year, the WWF has reported that 13 of the 17 dolphin deaths have been calves.
"We already know that the major cause of adult deaths is gillnets," Zanre aid. "But so far there is no evidence that the calf deaths are related to fishing nets. Our priority now is to determine why the calves are dying so we can reduce the current mortality rate."
Tissue samples from dead calves were sent to Canada for analysis on September 15 to determine if river pollution is a significant factor in the deaths.
"We're testing for a wide range of potential contaminants and we'll see what comes back," Zanre said. "If we get any toxic confirmations we can then work on eliminating the source of the pollutant."
The samples will be tested for traces of contamination from industrial sources such as mining, agriculture and even possible dioxins left over from the US military's defoliant Agent Orange.
In addition to increased government patrols to stamp out illegal fishing, dolphin preservation efforts are geared towards the promotion and control of tourism in an effort to raise awareness and gain local support.
The Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) has been working closely with the people of Kampi village where the main dolphin tourism project is located.
"Before, people competed for tourist business," said Or Channy, executive director of CRDT. "There was no control; no rules for boat numbers or the behavior of either the boat drivers or the tourists. Now there is organization and rules are in place to reduce the risk of stress on the dolphins."
Now that an organized system is in place, the local community is also reaping benefits.
"It is important that villages get benefits and see the benefits that the dolphins bring to Kampi," Channy said.
Children at the entrance to the tourist site at Kampi.
The Kampi community receives 40 percent of the dolphin area entrance fee, which has been used to fund agricultural development in the area. But other villages have as yet not seen any benefits from dolphin tourism.
"Local cooperation is lacking because people cannot see how dolphin conservation can help them personally," Channy said. "They see it benefiting certain groups only, so they don't care about the dolphins or tourism. They are just looking out for their own interests."
According to Channy, to gain the trust and cooperation of the local community the money needs to be used in tangible ways to illustrate how the dolphin project can benefit all. If they understood the value of tourism, he said, dolphin conservation and community development could be used together to benefit people, dolphins and the environment.
However, unequal distribution of tourism funds is inevitable. Fishing laws designed to protect dolphins are equally enforced in communities outside tourist areas. Fishermen in these areas feel they are disadvantaged by dolphin conservation efforts while communities such as Kampi reap the benefits.
WWF's Zanre explained that full cooperation in these areas can only be gained through education. Fishermen need to understand that sustainable fishing methods will benefit not only dolphins but the fishing industry, which has benefits for all people who make a living from the Mekong.
Zanre explained that many traditional fishing methods trap mostly larger fish. Although gillnets are cheap and less labor-intensive, they are indiscriminate. Besides dolphins they also trap young fish, depleting the fish stock.
In the dry season dolphins are limited to the deeper pools, where many fish feed during low waters, and also breed. The use of gillnets in these pools, as well as inadvertently killing dolphins, greatly reduces the future fish population. Limiting the use of nets in core dolphin habitats will reduce fishing pressure and increase fish production.
The dolphins are reported to be becoming shy of tourist boats.
"The endangered Irrawaddy dolphin is a flagship species for the conservation of the entire river," Zanre said. "By ensuring a healthy environment for dolphins we are in turn providing a healthy river ecosystem not only for dolphins but for all wildlife that depend on the Mekong for survival."
Experts are also debating the effect of tourism on the dolphin population.
"We don't know [how tourism is affecting the dolphins]," Zanre said. "To date Cambodian tourism has never been known to kill dolphins, so we're concentrating our resources in other areas of mortality reduction."
However, tourism does have a noticeable effect on dolphin behavior. These shy creatures have been moving to areas where tourist boats are less frequent, and their dive times increase in the presence of tourist boats.
Kim San has been assisting dolphin research in Cambodia for the past five years.
"A long time ago, dolphins would come close to humans and to boats, especially the fishing boats, hoping to feed. Sometimes I would see them play, but now they are afraid."
Kim San told the Post that over the time he has worked with the dolphins they have become progressively harder to locate. WWF do have future plans to do research into dolphin stress that may result from the increasing tourism.