Irrawaddy Dolphin Survey Shows Continued Population Decline

By Zarni Mann 25 February 2015

MANDALAY — A count of Irrawaddy dolphins along the river that is their namesake has tallied five fewer dolphins than a similar exercise did last year, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which is working to protect the critically endangered species’ dwindling population in Burma.

The population survey, which was conducted in early February along the Irrawaddy River between Bhamo in Kachin State and Mingun, Sagaing Division, by the New York-based WCS, found the number of Irrawaddy dolphins had dropped from 63 in January 2014 to 58.

“We have to say about five dolphins died in 2014,” said Kyaw Hla Thein, a member of the Burma chapter of WCS. “We believe the death toll is higher because the young calves we counted were just about 1 year old.”

With the survey indicating a continued slide in the population—WCS researchers counted 86 dolphins in early 2012—WCS said it planned to redouble its conservation efforts along the river, which it is undertaking in cooperation with the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries.

“We need to boost education programs to the locals to protect the dolphins and not to use life-threatening methods of fishing in the area where the dolphins are living,” said Kyaw Hla Thein.

In December 2014, two Irrawaddy dolphin calves’ carcasses were found near Mingun, and are believed to have died from electro-fishing, an illegal technique that is increasingly used by fishermen on the Irrawaddy River. Another carcass, this one an adult, was found the same month in Sagaing Division near Katha, with injuries indicative of a boat propeller-related death.

“The riverbed is getting shallower due to climate change and deforestation on the riverbanks. This is another factor threatening the lives of the dolphins,” Kyaw Hla Thein said.

“We need to protect nature, and we need the help of people and the government as well. If the population keeps declining like this, these Irrawaddy dolphins will be extinct very soon,” he added.

A 370 km (230 mile) stretch of the 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 the rules go largely unenforced.

Catching or killing dolphins is prohibited, as is trading in their meat. A ban on electro-fishing and curbs on the types of nets permitted for use by fishermen are also intended to protect the species, which is listed as critically endangered in Burma.