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
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
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
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
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.
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."