Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin Population On the Rise

By Zarni Mann 8 March 2016

MANDALAY – Burma’s endangered Irrawaddy dolphin population increased this year, according to a survey by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

The survey was conducted in February in the Irrawaddy River between Mandalay and Kachin State’s Bhamo. It found 65 dolphins, including three babies. The previous 2015 survey found 58 dolphins in the protection area, and three that had died in 2014.

“The total we found in February is quite satisfactory,” said Kyaw Hla Thein, a project coordinator with WCS. “We hope the number continues to increase, especially since we found three babies, swimming beside their mothers.”

A 230-mile stretch of the Irrawaddy River from Mingun to Kyauk Myaung in Sagaing Division was designated as a wildlife protection zone in 2005. The area has 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 Burma.

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

However, in 2014, the number declined to 63, which shocked researchers. The deaths were attributed to electro-fishing, which is illegal in the country. Despite threats of jail time, the practice continues.

“We are still struggling to stop the electro fishing,” said Kyaw Hla Thein. “Many still use this illegal method, threatening the lives of the dolphins and depleting fish stocks.”

Despite the efforts of the WCS and the government’s Fishery Department to stop the practice, attempts have been unsuccessful. But drawing the attention of foreign tourists and researchers has indirectly helped.

“On the bright side, the tourists’ interest in the dolphins has somehow persuaded local fisherman to protect [the dolphins],” he said. “This, along with our education programs, has resulted in the increase in population.”