Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin Population Decreases Further

By Zarni Mann 6 May 2019

MANDALAY—The discovery of the body of a young female Irrawaddy dolphin found in Thabeikyin Township, Mandalay Region on Saturday has further reduced the population of the increasingly rare dolphin breed from 72 to 71.

The carcass of the dolphin aged approximately one-year-old and measuring 1.2 meters (4 feet) in length was found floating in the river in Thabeikyin. It is believed to have died two or three days ago, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society Myanmar (WCS Myanmar).

“When we found the carcass, it was rotten and we could not tell exactly the cause of death. On the other hand, we can assume that electric fishing or other environmental matters, such as poisoning from pesticides or mercury waste from the gold mines, could be the cause of death,” said U Han Win, the officer in charge of the Irrawaddy Dolphins Conservation team at WCS Myanmar and an official at the agriculture ministry’s Department of Fisheries.

The death of this female Irrawaddy dolphin is the second one this year and brings the population down to 71.

“Only one death [among] these endangered species is already too much. We’ve conducted many education programs through WCS about conserving these Irrawaddy dolphins. However, this incident shows that locals—especially the fishermen—still need to follow the rules and regulations,” he added.

Since 2005, a defined protection zone for the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins has been in place stretching along the Irrawaddy River between Mingun and Kyauk Myaung in Sagaing Region, covering around 370 kilometers (230 miles). In October 2018, another protection area spanning 100 kilometers (62 miles) was defined between Male and Shwe Gu townships.

The protection zones have strict measures in place to protect the dolphins, but rules go largely unenforced. Catching or killing dolphins is prohibited, as is trading their meat. A ban on electro-fishing and regulations on the types of nets permitted are also intended to protect the species, which is listed as critically endangered in Myanmar.

According to surveys conducted by WCS, the number of Irrawaddy dolphins found in the protection zone was fewer than 20 between 2007-2009. That number increased dramatically after 2010 to 86.

In 2014, the number declined to 63, shocking researchers. Over the course of the next four years, it rose again reaching 76 in 2018.

A WCS survey conducted in February this year stated that a total of 72 Irrawaddy dolphins were found in the survey area which involved the section of the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Bhamo in Kachin State.

Most of the deaths of the endangered species are attributed to electro-fishing, which is illegal in the country, said U Kyaw Hla Thein, site manager with the Irrawaddy Dolphins Conservation Team.

According to WCS Myanmar, 18 fishermen were arrested and brought to court and 50 fishing boats using electro-fishing methods were seized in 2018. This year, 61 villages in the wildlife protection zone along the river are undergoing training in conservation of the Irrawaddy dolphins.

“Despite threats of jail time and the education programs, the practice of electro-fishing and the use of gill nets, especially in the protection zones, are still happening. Environmental issues such as pollution are still a threat to the lifeline of the dolphins,” U Kyaw Hla Thein said.

“Many local civil society groups and activists are also involved in conservation and the knowledge to protect these endangered species is dramatically rising. However, there is still not enough cooperation from the local community.”

As well as Myanmar, Irrawaddy dolphins can also be found in the Mekong River in Cambodia and Laos, and in Mahakham in Indonesia, according to WCS Myanmar.

In Myanmar, the endangered species are particularly famous among researchers and local fishermen for their co-fishing partnerships. A traditional fishing method in the area sees dolphins work with fishermen to round up shoals of fish and drive them towards the awaiting nets. The phenomenon is drawing increasing numbers of tourists to that area along the Irrawaddy River.

To promote the conservation of the unique dolphins, the local community, WCS Myanmar and local organizations have established community-based tourism projects which facilitate Irrawaddy dolphin co-fishing experiences for tourists.