Working together to save the dolphins of the Mekong River

Posted on 13 May 2012

By Aimee Leslie, WWF's Marine Turtle and Cetacean Manager 

Today the population of 85 Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabits the Mekong River in Cambodia faces great danger. Gill nets, the proposed construction of hydropower dams, and unplanned development all threaten the survival of the Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong.

But today, the biggest challenge faced by WWF scientists is that the calves are dying in very high numbers. A recent population study lead by WWF and the Cambodian Fisheries Administration found that the survival rate of calves through to adulthood was virtually zero. This means that practically all Irrawaddy dolphins born in the Mekong die within the first years of life.

"If this trend continues Irrawaddy dolphins could disappear from Mother Mekong by the end of the decade," said Gerry Ryan, a dolphin researcher at WWF-Cambodia. "The problem is that we are uncertain why so many calves are dying."

In January 2012, WWF convened a dolphin conservation workshop in Kratie, Cambodia that was attended by fifteen of the top cetacean scientists in the world and many local and regional experts. The scientists agreed that gill nets are the primary cause of adult mortality, but the reasons for the high rate of calf mortality are still not clear.

WWF, the Fisheries Administration, and the Dolphin Commission signed the Kratie Declaration, a joint statement in which they agreed to work together to conserve dolphins in the Mekong. The declaration included a long list of recommendations for the conservation of this population. 

WWF has been working in Kratie, Cambodia to help save Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins since 2005. The team has worked side by side with the Fisheries Administration to monitor the size of the population, determine causes of mortality through necropsy studies, water quality testing, promote protected areas in key dolphin habitat, and with local organizations to develop alternatives that improve the livelihoods of the surrounding communities, while reducing human pressure on dolphins and their environment.

"The Irrawaddy dolphins attract over 10,000 tourists a year to this province," said Gordon Congdon, Project Manager for WWF-Cambodia. "The survival of this population is important for the livelihoods of the communities along the Mekong River and as an iconic symbol of the rich natural heritage of Cambodia.”

WWF will continue efforts to save Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River through science based policy development and ongoing research, concurrent with grassroots work with local communities to reduce the threats - for healthy dolphins, healthy rivers, and healthy people.