Save the Irrawaddy River Dolphins

Steven Katsineris with a call to save Dolphins. Steven Katsineris is an Australian freelance writer of articles on Palestine, Cyprus and the rest of the Middle East region, political prisoners and human rights, environmental and social issues. He has been actively involved in the Palestine solidarity movement for over forty years. Steven Katsineris lives with his family in Melbourne, Australia.

The Mekong River is the mother of all Southeast Asian rivers, providing life-sustaining resources to millions of people. The future of the Mekong, her people and wildlife are in jeopardy, however.

The government of Laos plans to build the Don Sahong Dam – the second dam proposed for construction on the Lower Mekong mainstream – on the main pathway in the Mekong that allows for year-round fish migration. If built, the Don Sahong Dam will entirely block the Hou Sahong Channel, endangering the rare Irrawaddy River Dolphins and fish migration throughout the region, with far-reaching consequences for people’s food and livelihood security in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Lives in this area and throughout the Mekong are intricately entwined with the river that provides an identity and rich history, as well as a source of income and food security. The planned site of the Don Sahong Dam is also a unique section of the Mekong River, home to one of the last remaining populations of critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins as well as the iconic Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and near an internationally protected Ramsar wetland site in downstream Cambodia.

The Irrawaddy River Dolphins of the Mekong River are therefore in grave danger: a commission of four Southeast Asian states will be meeting soon to decide whether to go ahead with building the Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River in Laos. The dam would have untold consequences for the entire Mekong ecosystem and the people that depend on the river for their livelihoods and most likely would mean the extinction of the Mekong’s last population of less than 100 Irrawaddy River Dolphins. 

Irrawaddy Dolphins live in both saltwater and freshwater in South and Southeast Asia. They are widespread in coastal areas, but they now only survive in three rivers – the Mekong in Cambodia and Lao PDR, the Mahakam in Indonesia, and the Ayeyarwaddy in Myanmar. The population in each of these rivers is thought to be less than 100 dolphins and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species describes these three river populations as Critically Endangered.

The population in the Mekong is estimated to be 75 adults. Research shows that the population is slowly declining and the mortality rate is unsustainably high. In the last 10 years at least 115 dolphins have died, which is an average of nearly one per month. Fishermen along the Mekong use gillnets to fish and unfortunately dolphins are occasionally caught in them as bycatch.

In 2006 the Cambodian government with support of conservation group, Save Our Species created the Dolphin Commission to protect Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong River. The Dolphin Commission now has 17 ranger posts along the river and more than 70 rangers patrolling the river to prevent the use of gillnets in dolphin protection zones. A grant from SOS - Save Our Species enabled the project team to provide training, equipment, and fuel to allow more frequent and effective ranger patrols. The purpose of this project was to reduce the number of dolphins that die in gillnets each year. 

So, the situation of these threatened river dolphins was already dire and if the building of this dam goes ahead it would probably be the last straw in their difficult struggle for survival. Please act to protect the Mekong’s Irrawaddy River Dolphins from extinction. Now is the time for us to make our voices heard and call on these leaders to stop playing with the lives of the Irrawaddy River Dolphins, the livelihoods of their people and future of the vital resources the river supports.

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