Last 6 river dolphins in Laos about to go extinct

Six remaining river dolphins in the Mekong River pool at the border between Laos and Cambodia are in constant day-to-day threat of extinction due to gillnet fishing, warns WWF.

According to a new WWF report by Gerry Ryan, Technical Advisor with WWF-Cambodia, Last chance for dolphins in Laos, since gillnets have been set by local fisheries, more than 30 dolphins have died in this area since 1991. In the first quarter of this year, WWF once counted even 188 gillnets in this trans-boundary pool.

A dolphin dead, entangled in a gillnet. © WWF-Cambodia

After the presence of about 25 freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins in this trans-boundary pool in the ‘90s, the six remaining dolphins are believed to be an isolated sub-population, not moving upstream or downstream Mekong River. If the decline trend continues, it is estimated that none of these dolphins will remain in the pool after 2037, although it is likely to expect that their loss will come much sooner, “but as long as they survive there is hope,” said Ryan.

Even though gillnets are banned throughout an entire pool and nearby areas in Cambodia, in the Laos’s side of the pool this has been regulated only in the deepest areas, resulting in intensified extinction risk for dolphins in the wet season as they then reside in the 5km² radius, instead of 1km² in the dry season.

“Laos must immediately ban gillnets from the entire trans-boundary pool area on their side of the border, throughout the whole year, or face losing the country’s last river dolphins,” said Ryan.

Although gillnets have been recognized as an immediate threat to the extinction of these strictly protected dolphins, there are other biodiversity pressures in Mekong River. Illegal fishing, use of explosives, boat traffic and potential construction of large concrete pier and ramp at Anlung Cheuteal need to be resolved through the coordinated trans-boundary actions.

While WWF warns of need-to-be-made actions, dolphin-watching tourism is in rapid expansion. Only last year, about 20,000 tourists are estimated to have visited the trans-boundary dolphin-watching sites. In one site in Laos, dolphin-watching tours have been more than doubled since 2008, while at one such site in Cambodia, the number of tours has increased nearly 30 times since 2005.

“Dolphins are a major tourist attraction and contributor to growth,” said Ryan. “Dolphin-watching tourism brings in much needed income to local communities that otherwise rely heavily on fisheries for subsistence and income. It is clear that saving the dolphins also means smart development.”

Local communities are especially dependent of this ecosystem and, aside livelihood benefits, it is in the communities’ interest to preserve the dolphins, as their loss may lead to the loss and endangerment of an entire freshwater ecosystem and its surroundings.

“The loss of the river dolphins would not only greatly diminish Laos’ biodiversity, it would suggest a potentially devastating decline in the health of the entire river ecosystem, and likely declines in other species too,” warns Ryan.

“Urgent and strict protection efforts are needed to keep hope for the survival of this elusive icon of the Mekong River alive, without it hope will fade very fast, ” said Ryan.