Survey Finds Decade-High Numbers of Irrawaddy Dolphins

By Zarni Mann 24 February 2020

Mandalay – The number of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins found in Myanmar this year has increased to 79, the highest in a decade, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society of Myanmar (WCS).

The numbers include seven calves aged three months or younger.

The Irrawaddy dolphins can also be found in the Mekong River in Cambodia and Laos, and in Mahakham River in Indonesia, according to WCS Myanmar. However, the dolphins in Myanmar have been on the brink of extinction, mostly due to electro-fishing.

In Myanmar, the endangered species is renowned among researchers and fishing communities for their co-fishing partnerships. A traditional fishing method in the area sees dolphins work with fishing crews to round up shoals of fish and drive them towards nets. The phenomenon attracts increasing numbers of tourists to the Irrawaddy River.

“This is the highest number of the Irrawaddy dolphins found in the Irrawaddy River since 2010,” said U Han Wine, who runs the Irrawaddy dolphins conservation team at the WCS Myanmar.

The survey was carried out in early February along the Irrawaddy protection zone from Mandalay to Bhamo in Kachin State.

The WCS and Department of Fisheries surveys estimated the number of dolphins between 2002 and 2005 at 29, when the conservation and protection plans began.

“The numbers varied from 58 to 70 in recent years. Last year, we counted 72, including four calves,” said U Han Win, who is also an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation’s Department of Fisheries.

Since 2005, a protection zone for the dolphins has been enforced along 370 km of the Irrawaddy between Mingun and Kyaukmyaung in Sagaing Region. In October 2018, another protected area spanning 100 km was introduced between Male and Shwe Gu townships.

According to WCS surveys, the number of dolphins in the protection zone was fewer than 20 between 2007-09. The number increased by 2010 to 86.

However, the number fell to 63 in 2014 and recovered to 76 by 2018.

U Han Win said the increase showed conservation work and educational programs were on the right path. He added that there were still challenges ahead before the endangered label could be removed.

“We are on the right path, however, it is still hard to say when we can remove the endangered status as there are many challenges ahead, such as the use of electric shocks for fishing, poor water quality and food for the dolphins,” he added.

U Han Win said during the survey seven fishing boats which used battery-powered electric shocks to kill fish – the biggest threat to the dolphins – were seized along with toxic chemicals to kill fish.

“Since we can’t patrol the river every day, fishing crews still use electricity to kill fish, which is illegal, despite education programs and the threat of punishment,” said U Han Win.

“Electric-shock fishing will only disappear when fishermen follow the law. Currently, we are cooperating with the police for frequent patrols along the river to stop them,” he said.

The penalties for electro-fishing are three years in prison, a fine of up to 200,000 kyats (US$138) and the confiscation of boats and equipment.

U Han Win said the environment of the Irrawaddy River was improving but there was still limited food for the Irrawaddy dolphins.

“We still need to fight for better water quality. The use of pesticides and chemicals along the river poisons the dolphins directly or the fish they eat,” U Han Win added.

“If the numbers of fish decline, it will threaten the dolphins too. We need more cooperation with other ministries, as well as residents, to save the river ecosystem to remove the endangered status and ensure the successful conservation of the Irrawaddy dolphins,” he said.

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