Irrawaddy dolphins can live in both saltwater and freshwater. However while they are widespread in coastal areas, they now survive in three rivers only. With fewer than 100 dolphins and unsustainable mortality rates, the Mekong population is considered Critically Endangered.
“Entanglement as by-catch in gillnets is the major threat to dolphin survival”, explains Mr Thibault Ledecq, Conservation Programme Manager with WWF. “This SOS-funded project aims to reduce the number of dolphins that drown in gillnets each year”.
The cause of the Mekong River’s Irrawaddy Dolphins has long been supported by the Royal Government of Cambodia, who in 2006 created the Commission for Dolphin Conservation & Development. More recently in August 2012, the government issued a sub-decree banning the use of gillnets when fishing in the dolphin habitat, a 190km stretch of the mainstream Mekong River between Kratie, Cambodia and Khone Falls on the border with Lao PDR. This was an important new step toward the conservation of dolphins, but to be effective this law and other regulations related to fisheries must be supported by local communities and backed up with strong enforcement by rangers.
Enforcement work is a daily challenge and requires a variety of tools and skills, often carried out in remote areas where patrol guards need to rely on themselves. However, a lack of resources left the Commission’s eighty (80) river guards insufficiently equipped and trained to succeed in their role: protecting the area’s Irrawaddy dolphins.
Thus a significant development was the delivery by the project team of equipment that addresses the current gaps. Uniforms, boat engines and life jackets were supplied to help guards safely patrol the river. Global positioning system technologies (GPS) radio telecommunications tools and water-proof cameras along with solar panels will enable them to perform monitoring and law-enforcement activities efficiently in even the most remote areas. The project team also provided a 4-day training course for the enforcement units, first ensuring an in-depth understanding of the legislation related to dolphin protection, then developing expert practical knowledge such as patrol techniques, first aid skills or the use of GPS for geo-referencing locations and navigation.
“The Commission recognises that enforcement is a cornerstone of conservation action for the Mekong Dolphin,” said His Excellency Touch Seang Tana, Chairman of the Dolphin Commission. “We are very thankful to receive the equipment and training as it will greatly support enforcement work. It is now the responsibility of river guard personnel to effectively utilise the new equipment and skills in their duty of protecting the dolphin and above all to maintain high moral attitudes and commitment.”
In tandem with this important collaboration with enforcement authorities, the project team will also be working with local NGOs to conduct education and outreach activities about dolphin conservation and to help provide fishermen with alternative fishing solutions or sources of income. A holistic project approach, designed to offer the best possible future to the Mekong River’s Dolphins!