Northeastern Cambodia’s last known freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin has died, officials have announced.
The Irrawaddy dolphin – one of three whale and dolphin species that occupy both fresh and marine waters – was found dead last Tuesday (February 15) on the bank of the Mekong River in Koh La Ngo, near the border with Laos.
In a Facebook post, Cambodia’s Fisheries Conservation Department announced the news:
“We are saddened to lose the last dolphin at the Cheuteal water pool adjacent to the border of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR).
“The transboundary Mekong River dolphin sub-population experienced serious pressure from anthropogenic activities, change of the Mekong water flow, and climate change, causing the total population to have gradually declined,” it said.
There are plans to commemorate the loss of dolphins at the Cheuteal water pool with a statue.
The WWF suspects that this death represents a national-level extinction of the Irrawaddy dolphin in Laos. Lan Mercado, WWF Asia-Pacific Director, said:
“WWF is saddened by the death of the last known river dolphin in the transboundary pool in the Mekong between Cambodia and Laos.”
“The numbers in the pool have plummeted over the last few years, due to multiple threats including hydropower dam construction causing disruptions to river flow and reduced fish abundance, drowning in gill-nets, and the use of damaging fishing practices such as electrofishing and overfishing,” Mercado said.
Hunting and fishing to blame
The Irrawaddy population has historically been threatened by hunting, and by being used for target practice during Cambodia’s troubled periods.
The move from thick fishing nets – which could be detected by dolphin echolocation – to cheap, thin nylon nets has increased the risk of dolphins drowning in fishing nets in recent years.
AKP news agency in Cambodia reported that the last dolphin’s tail was seen tangled in a fishing net around a week before it was found dead.
Challenges ahead for dolphins
Freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins have been listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List since 2017 when its status was raised from “vulnerable.”
The Cambodian population of the Irrawaddy dropped from around 200 dolphins in 1997 to only 89 in 2020.
“The remaining population of ‘Critically Endangered’ river dolphins in the Cambodia section of the Mekong is now stable, whilst still facing serious challenges,” Mercado added. “This latest river dolphin death highlights how vulnerable these and other species remain.
“Documenting the lessons learned from this tragic loss is critically important if we are to protect the endangered species in the region.”