MANDALAY—The already dwindling population of Irrawaddy dolphins in Burma now faces a new threat: electric shock.
Two young carcasses of the rare species were found late last week on the bank of the Irrawaddy River in Min Gun Township, just north of Mandalay. Locals said the bodies were believed to have died from electric shock, an illegal fishing method used to shore up a quick and abundant catch.
“The dead dolphins, one male and one female, were just about one year old. They have no injuries or diseases and are believed to have died by electric shock,” said Maung Maung Oo, a member of a local conservationist group, Green Activities, which researches the species.
“It means a lot for the entire population,” he continued, “we wonder how many of them have died but didn’t reach the shore.”
Researchers and wildlife protection advocates told The Irrawaddy that despite legal restrictions and targeted awareness programs, some fishermen still use high-voltage shock methods to yield a higher catch. The practice threatens both dolphin and fish populations, and is an ultimately unsustainable technique, they said.
“Fish resources in the Irrawaddy River are declining because electric shock kills almost everything within a certain range,” said Kyaw Hla Thein, a member of Burma’s Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) chapter.
The local chapter of the New York-based organization collaborates with Burma’s Department of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development on conservation projects, including protection of the Irrawaddy dolphin. The most recent WCS figures, gleaned from research collected early this year, count the total population of the dolphin around 63 between Mandalay and Bhamo, in northern Burma.
A 370km (230 mile) stretch of the river from Min Gun to Kyauk Myaung in Sagaing Division was designated as a wildlife protection zone in 2005. The area has many strict measures in place to protect them, but the rules go largely unenforced.
Catching or killing dolphins is prohibited, as is trading their meat. Electro-fishing and the use of large nets are strictly forbidden. Using gillnets longer than 91 meters (300 feet) or spaced less than 180 meters apart is punishable, and release of dolphins caught in fishing nets is mandatory.
Upstream gold mining operations are also forbidden to use mercury during extraction.
But dolphin defenders said the rules aren’t working. Fishermen using illegal tactics have been said to work in large alliances and threaten locals not to report violations to authorities.
“The fisheries department and NGOs have no power to arrest [fishermen using illegal methods]. We plan to focus on educating locals, but that alone is not enough,” said Kyaw Hla Thein of WCS. “We want the government to begin serious involvement in the conservation of the Irrawaddy dolphins.”
The Irrawaddy dolphin, small in size and with an atypically short beak, is a species found mostly in the rivers of Southeast Asia and estuaries near the Bay of Bengal. The species is classified as vulnerable by the World Wildlife Fund, but populations outside of Bangladesh and India—where some 90 percent of the entire population lives—are considered critically endangered.