First Irrawaddy Dolphin Birth of 2024 Recorded 

A two-day-old dolphin calf was spotted swimming in the Mekong River on Feb. 11, making it the first Irrawaddy dolphin birth recorded in 2024. Photo: Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

PHNOM PENH – A two-day-old dolphin calf was spotted swimming in the Mekong River on Feb. 11, making it the first Irrawaddy dolphin birth recorded in 2024. The population tally is around 90, living along the main channel of the Mekong River in the Stung Treng and Kratie provinces. 

The calf was seen swimming with a group of six adult dolphins in the Mekong Dolphin Pleasance of Kampi village in Kratie province, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. The river guard, the fishery administration and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Cambodia spotted the creature during a patrol.

According to a population census published in 2020, 89 dolphins were living in Cambodia’s section of the Mekong River that year, compared to 92 in 2017. They live in nine underwater canyons: Four are located in Stung Treng and five in Kratie.

The species is classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

In 2023, eight new dolphins were recorded while five were found dead. In 2022, only six new dolphins were spotted, and 11 were found dead. 

Over the past two years, the trend has been to witness more births than deaths, which is a positive sign of hope for the future of the species in Cambodia, said Seng Teak, country director of WWF- Cambodia

However, he said Irrawaddy dolphins have a low reproductive rate and face several threats related to fishing: They are severely affected by bycatch, or end up stuck in gillnets. Illegal fishing practices, which consist of the use of electrical fishing nets or explosives, are also harmful.

Over 70 percent of the Mekong dolphin population is over 20 years old, making them incapable of breeding. Irrawaddy dolphins have a life expectancy of 27 to 30 years.

“With all the protection and conservation efforts from relevant stakeholders, the threats to the Irrawaddy dolphin have been mitigated,” Teak said. 

“However, this creature is critically endangered, and the continual effort and collective work, not only from the ministry and the WWF but also from citizens, are needed.”

He said that new population estimates would be published soon, after a census was carried out in October 2023. The survey team is finalizing the results and addressing potential technical errors at the moment.

Teak said that WWF will continue to work closely with the ministry, the river guards and the fisheries administration to monitor and eliminate all forms of illegal fishing to ensure that the species will not go extinct.

“We can see the light yielded from our effort, but we should not be careless and keep working,” he said. “I want every individual to contribute their effort and stop illegal fishing, join hands to preserve these Irrawaddy dolphins.”

In February 2023, then-Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a decree designating 120 kilometers of the Mekong River as a protected zone where fishing is prohibited, hoping to prevent more dolphins from dying and entangling in fishing gear.

However, in April 2023, he revoked the directive because thousands of fishing families were adversely affected while dolphins kept dying. Small-scale fishing is now allowed in the protected area, but large-scale fishing and electrofishing are still prohibited.

Yet, illegal fishing is still common on the Mekong River. In 2023, authorities cracked down on 122 fishing crimes in the Upper Mekong River region. While 11 fishermen were jailed over illegal fishing activities, another 96 defendants were freed after they promised not to commit the same crimes again.

Seng Teak of WWF is optimistic that more new-born dolphins will be spotted as long as illegal fishing is addressed and reduced.

In addition, he calls on every citizen not to contaminate the river’s environment with plastics or other pollutants, as the dolphins need a clean environment and sufficient prey to be able to survive.

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