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Rare Dolphin Offered a Second Chance

  • Irrawaddy dolphin breaching

    The Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit a 118-mile stretch of the Mekong River between Cambodia and Lao PDR.

  • Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphin

    The protection of the Irrawaddy dolphin is crucial for the overall health of the Mekong River—home to an estimated 1,100 species of fish.

  • Mekong River in Cambodia

    Mekong River fish populations are the primary source of protein for over 60 million people.

  • Mekong River Fishermen

    Around 80 percent of the population in the Greater Mekong region depend on healthy natural systems such as rivers, forests and wetlands for food security, livelihoods and culture.

There are fewer than 100 Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River of Southeast Asia, and researchers fear the numbers are shrinking even further. Nicknamed the “smiling face of the Mekong,” the population of these small dolphins has been plummeting in recent decades mainly because of dangerous fishing practices. Numerous dolphins die each year after getting entangled or trapped in gillnets used by local fishermen.

A Chance for Survival

But now the dolphins may have something to smile about. In September local government agencies in Cambodia agreed to work with WWF to conserve dolphins and minimize or eliminate deaths from gillnets. The Cambodian government issued a decree that bans the use of gillnets along a 110-mile stretch of the Mekong River, which is critical dolphin habitat. These rare animals have a chance to increase their numbers and avoid the risk of extinction through the prevention of accidental captures in gillnets.

Restrictions on gillnet use can create difficulties for the people who depend on fishing for food and to make a living. WWF is working with local governments and other partners in Cambodia to provide alternate ways for people to earn a living and feed their families without harming the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin. These approaches include raising livestock, growing vegetables, and seafood farming –also known as aquaculture. WWF is also promoting ecotourism, which can be a lucrative alternative for communities and allows visitors to understand why Irrawaddy dolphins are a living, national treasure in Cambodia.

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