The Critically Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins of the Mekong River

By Bhavani Prakash

Irrawaddy Dolphin spread on the MekongThe 7000 or so Irrawaddy Dolphins still left in the world (and labelled vulnerable on the IUCN list) are spread somewhat discontinuously over coastal areas of Asia and some stretches of rivers in the region. One sub-population that is critically endangered is in the Mekong river.

The Mekong river is the lifeblood of several countries. It stretches over 4,300km starting from the Tibetan plateau, running through China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong, despite its formidable length, now confines the Irrawaddy Dolphins to a tiny stretch of only 190km between Kampi in Kratie province in Cambodia to the Laos border.

Irrawaddy Dolphin Photo by WWF Cambodia

Irrawaddy Dolphin Photo by WWF Cambodia

I had the opportunity to visit Cambodia recently, and one of the main purposes of the trip was to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. Ever since the disappearance of the Baiji dolphins which I had written about earlier, there has been a race against time to save the remaining endangered river dolphins of the world such as the Gangetic Dolphins, the Amazon river dolphins and of course, the Irrawaddy dolphins.

I headed off to a tiny hamlet called Kampi, in Kratie province, about 170km northeast of the capital Phnom Penh. Two days earlier, I had visited the memorial of the killing fields at Choeung Ek village off Phnom Penh, a reminder of the incomprehensible brutality of the Pol Pot regime which took the lives of more than 2 million people. The genocide of the regime in the late 1970s did not spare the Irrawaddy dolphins either – the 1000 or so which were alive in the 1970s were slaughtered systematically for their oils to be used in weapons.

Ban on gillnet fishing

Now there are only around 85 Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong, according to WWF Cambodia. Even though the government has banned gillnet fishing which is a current threat to the Irrawaddy dolphins, other threats remain, such as pollution in the river, and the segmentation of the remaining populations into smaller numbers – something that may get even worse with the hydroelectric dam in Laos on the Mekong.

Boatman at KampiMy boatman said there are about 30 dolphins in the Kampi region, and they tend to stay in the deeper pools of the Mekong river, as the river level can go down in the dry season.  The rainy season had already started this month, so I just kept my fingers crossed that the weather stayed in our favour.

As we set off, I was a bit concerned about the noise the engine was making, as I know dolphins are very sensitive to sound, but thankfully we slowed down as we approached the deeper pools.  We were so lucky to spot several Irrawaddy dolphins in a narrow window when the clouds cleared up and let the sun through.


Video link here

The Irrawaddy dolphins tend to stay in pods of 3 to 6, and sometimes upto 10. They are mammals, and breathe at intervals of 70-150 seconds. They make a sighing sound (which you may have noticed in the video) as they come up to breathe. The gestation period is 14 months, but the young seldom survive till adulthood on the Mekong, making it harder to replace older populations of dolphins.

It’s not easy for the people living in this region to give up fishing, and yet without the involvement of the local community, no environment can really be protected. NGOs like WWF Cambodia and the local government have been working on creating alternative livelihoods, such as tourism, handicrafts and land based farming.

It began to get very cloudy.  I think the pod of dolphins sensed the rains, and began to swim away rapidly.  It was time to head back. The skies opened up and it felt like the heavens poured down with all their might on the Mekong. I felt grateful to have been given this wonderful opportunity by the Irrawaddy dolphins, by the skies and perhaps by time itself to see these creatures. It was with a mixed feeling of joy and concern that we bid goodbye to this mighty river, with hope that the Irrawaddy dolphins, the heart of the Mekong continues to beat forever.

****************************************************************************************************************************************************** About the writer: 

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk.com which raises awareness about various environmental issues in Asia.


Read about the extinction of the Baiji dolphins here. 

Please sign the Avaaz.org petition to save the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. Avaaz mentions there are 78 dolphins left while WWF Cambodia puts the figure at 85. We’re not sure of exact numbers, but we know for sure the numbers are way too small to be ignored.


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Posted by on Jul 23 2014. Filed under Africa & S.E.Asia, Animals/Wildlife. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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