In April, a female Irrawaddy river dolphin was found dead close to the border of Laos, reducing the area’s population to five.
Locals discovered the dolphin on Cheutal Touch Island, Cambodia and immediately alerted river authorities. She weighed approximately 490 pounds (223 kilograms) and measured nearly 8 feet (2.4 meters) long. Although, the cause of death is unknown, marks on the female’s body indicated old age.
Down to just five left in Laos, the Irrawaddy species is critically endangered in the Mekong River. Manager of World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Greater Mekong Species Program Thomas Gray stated:
“This is a very sad time for this dwindling population of dolphins. There are now just five dolphins left in Laos and it is another warning that the species is facing the grave risk of extinction from the country, and also throughout the Mekong River.”
The Irrawaddy dolphins, which inhabit the Wang Paa Khaa river pool, have been fighting for survival over the past few decades, due to gillnet entanglement and illegal fishing methods like explosives and poison.
Gillnet entanglement, in particular, has been identified as the main cause of dolphin mortality. Cambodia has banned gillnet fishing on its side of the border, but Laos has only prohibited its use in the deepest parts of the pool.
In addition, Laos is planning to build the 260 megawatt Don Sahong Dam, which poses perhaps one of the largest threats to the dolphin population. The dam’s construction will entail the use of explosives to unearth tons of rock that will potentially kill or seriously harm nearby dolphins.
In the past, as many as 40 to 50 dolphins used this river pool, but numbers fell to 25 in the 1990s. Despite this drop, the dolphins are a major source of tourism and attract around 20,000 visitors per year.
WWF has and continues to urge Laos and Cambodia to work together on collective solutions to save this huge source of tourist revenue and one of the most iconic species in the world. WWF-Greater Mekong Conservation Director Teak Seng says:
“The small population size and high calf mortality means these rare and beautiful dolphins are facing a highly uncertain future, but there is still hope for them. Joint conservation action between both countries is paramount. The key is collaboration between Laos and Cambodia. It’s time to end the use of all types of illegal fishing gear and strictly regulate the use of gillnets and boat traffic. Working on these issues is the only long-term hope for the dolphin’s survival in Laos and the greater Mekong.”