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Save the Dolphin – A look at the Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin

By Panee Manithip, Pasason Newspaper, Laos

Take a needle slim boat through the flooded forest to the picturesque Ban Hang Khone on Khone Island and you emerge at the edge of a wide, still pool in southern Laos, just a hundred meters from the Cambodian border.
You’ve travelled in the hope of catching a glimpse of Paa Khaa (Irrawaddy dolphin). As you strain your eyes and stare into the cloudy Mekong, the surface of the glassy water breaks and you hear a faint but distinct "wof, wof" sound. In a split second, the 20 odd spectators gathered on the riverbanks and saw the disappearing back of a dolphin. Everybody returned happily. Another Mekong River dolphin show is over.
A few Mekong dolphins are known to inhabit the lower river around the Khone Falls. This turbulent complex of rapids and waterfalls makes it impossible for the mammals to move further upstream so the “now you see it, now you don’t” grey shape in the river is one of the few left in Laos.
Until six year ago, the dolphins could be seen on the other side of the falls at Attapeu, Sekong, Sepian and Sekaman, but not anymore. Nobody knows why. Villagers think that now there are less than 10 dolphins in Ban Hang Khone compared to at least twice that number five years ago. They think that only an estimated 100 remain in the entire river, most of them in the Cambodian waters.
The endangered Mekong dolphin, (Corcaella brevirostris or Irrawaddy dolphin) also known as Paa Khaa in Laos, is distinct from other Irrawaddy dolphins found in the South China Sea, Northern Australia and the Yangtze River. The Mekong dolphin has a rounded head with no beak and a flexible neck. Its colour varies from dark and light blue-grey, to pale blue. On maturity, it reaches up to two and a half meters long. Their gestation period is 11 months and they give birth only once in two years.
Why have their numbers fallen so dramatically? Fishermen and observers like Ian Baird, director of the Global Association for People and the Environment (GAPE)an NGO based in Laos, point to the use of explosives by fishermen, the hazards posed by gill nets and razor sharp boat propellers. However, Baird said gill nets may not be responsible. " One person out of a hundred catches one dolphin a year,"  he said. Nonetheless, gill nets are prohibited in the waters where Paa Khaa are found at Hang Khone village.
Dolphins are generally respected by communities throughout the Mekong basin. In the past, only Cham people in Cambodia hunted them for food. The only other time that dolphins were targeted was in the mid seventies when they were killed by the Khmer Rouge to extract oil for their war machinery.

For many Lao, dolphins are reincarnations of human beings and there are many legends about dolphins saving villagers who have fallen into the Mekong River.
The people of Hang Khone know that dolphins mean more tourists but they also realise that it is important to save the dolphins for future generations to enjoy. They want to see immediate action taken to preserve the remaining Paa Khaa.
Baird adds, " I will be very sorry if the dolphins become extinct throughout the  Mekong."

Copyright 2009 IMMF.