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Irrawaddy Dolphins Functionally Extinct in Laos: Survey

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The population of critically endangered Mekong River Dolphins – Irrawaddy Dolphins – in the Cheuteal trans-boundary pool between southern Laos and northern Cambodia has shrunk by 50 percent this year and the population is functionally extinct in Laos.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) survey teams from Laos and Cambodia recently conducted a dolphin abundance survey and confirmed the current number and breeding status of the dolphins in the trans-boundary pool.

The survey teams reported that the group has now shrunk to just three individuals  from six earlier this year. There is now little hope for a reversal of the situation, as the small population is no longer viable.

Functional extinction results when there are too few potential breeding pairs available to ensure the survival of the population, they said.

The population of Irrawaddy Dolphins is functionally extinct in the near future if we don’t have good measures to protect them, WWF-Laos Southern Provinces Coordinator Ms Amphone Phommachak said.

In an interview with Vientiane Times yesterday, Ms Amphone stressed that the use of gillnets, especially unmanned gillnets, is thought to be one of the main reasons for the demise of the dolphins. Gillnets are vertical panels of netting set in a straight line across a river to catch fish. Being large aquatic mammals, Mekong River dolphins, as well as other endangered aquatic species, are often caught in gillnets, and drown as a consequence.

The use of gillnets in the Mekong River is prohibited in Cambodia  where there are an estimated 80 dolphins  but not in Laos.

Only the actual deep pool off Hangsadam village in Khong district, Champassak province, where the dolphins are, is protected. Gillnets are, however, used directly outside of the pool where the dolphins often swim and risk being trapped.

The WWF calls for an immediate ban on all gillnets for a two kilometre radius around the Cheuteal pool (4 km in the rainy season) and increased enforcement against violators.

The WWF also asks for increased enforcement of gillnet bans in other Mekong River dolphin pools to protect the remaining dolphin population.

The alarming decline of Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos that we have witnessed this year is tragic. At this stage, we fear that in a year or two, there may be no more dolphins in Laos, the WWF Conservation Director for the Greater Mekong Teak Seng said.

The loss of this iconic species for Laos is even more tragic given that it was entirely preventable through strict enforcement against gillnets fishing.

The Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River have long been a favourite attraction among travellers and tourists in southern Laos. Their feared disappearance from Lao waters may cause a hard blow to eco-tourism in the area.

Irrawaddy dolphins can be found in some coastal areas in Asia but there are only three freshwater subpopulations: in the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar, in the Mahakam River in Indonesia, and in the Mekong River in Cambodia and Laos.

Source: Vientiane Times