Decline the number of Freshwater Dolphin in Cambodian Mekong River
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Policies and measures :Cambodia

Decline the number of Freshwater Dolphin in Cambodian Mekong River


Cambodia has tremendous natural resources such as water resources. Mekong River, Tonle Sap Great Lake and their tributaries are fundamental resources not only for the million Cambodian livelihoods and the nation itself, but also other countries which share the Mekong River.

Picture 1:
Inundated forest in Tonle Sap Great Lake (Pictured by Mekong River Commission)

These water resources perform a basic role as a resource for rice cultivation and a habitat of the abundant aquatic species, especially, fishes and waterfowls. They are also a part of the cultural heritage of the country, like the Angkor Wat Temple that is a significant heritage for the Cambodian on the perspectives of its history and development. For them, the identities of Mekong River and Tonle Sap Great Lake are found in such a number of inundated forests and large important fish’s sanctuary, especially, endangered and rare fish and waterfowl species of the Tonle Sap Great Lake. The freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphin and the Mekong Giant Catfish are major unique features in the river. However, the population of the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphin is seriously diminishing, and its size and the range of its habitat also become small. The population of the dolphin is threatened by accidental and deliberate killing, gillnet entanglement, boat noise disturbance and collision, dynamite and electric fishing, over-fishing of prey species, disturbance by tourist boats, live trap and pollution. Now is almost the last chance for Cambodia to save one of its most important natural heritages.

Picture 2:
Freshwater Dolphin appearance in Mekong River (Pictured by Mekong River Commission)

Reference information

The Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins is being threatened, and its number is declining due to human activities. The known mortality rate of the dolphins is significant and come to the unsustainable level A total of 14 dolphin carcasses were recovered (16 reported) in 2003 and also 18 carcasses were recovered in 2004. This number represents slightly more than 10% of its total population of each year. In order to conserve the Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphin, it is essential to correctly identify threats to the dolphin and try to reduce them.

Past threats to the dolphin

The Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphin has been subject to a variety of threats over the years including:

  • Hunting by Khmer Rouge during the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979). It was reported that hundred of dolphins were killed during the for the motor boats fuel dry season.
  • Using the dolphin for the target of shooting practices by Khmer and Vietnamese soldiers (1980-1995); and
  • Accidental gillnet entanglement with the advancement of new fishing gears (1970 -present).

Current Threats to the dolphin

The following threats currently observed have the greatest impacts to the dolphin population:

  • Accidental entanglement with gillnets;
  • Catch in seine nets;
  • Illegal fishing practices (e.g. electric and dynamite fishing);
  • Boat collision and contacts;
  • Environmental pollution;
  • Dam/waterway construction.

The following factors are “currently” less threatening, but have the potential to cause serious problems in the future:

  • The use of dolphin body parts for traditional medicine
  • Habitat degradation
  • Over-fishing

The Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphin still has a chance to survive due to the positive and high perception of the dolphin by Cambodian and Lao PDR people. However, because of the increasing threats described above, it is essential to implement countermeasures as soon as possible. Furthermore, the conservation activities should be conducted in parallel with education and awareness activities in order to make people understood its significance of the dolphin as well as to cooperate with all community members such activities.

Policy response

The gradual declining number of freshwater dolphin in Cambodian Mekong River has been observed, and the Cambodian government saw it as the problem. The government in collaboration with international communities takes actions to protect and conserve the precious and endangered species. Taking into consideration of the decreasing number of the Irrawaddy Dolphin population from year to year by human activities, the Royal Government of Cambodia, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and concerned institution has been taking actions to protect and conserve the freshwater species with conservation strategies. The strategy is divided into following sections:

1) Contribution of the Department of Fisheries in development of the national legislation to protect the dolphin. The new Fisheries Law in Cambodia and subsequent Sub-Decree significantly assist to conserve cetaceans in Cambodian waters, in particular, the Mekong Dolphin population. Additionally, a team which is responsible for conservation of species and enforcement of the laws will be established to control illegal fishing in Kratie Province and relevant river section of Lao People Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), as well as in the established conservation areas. To effectively banned illegal fishing, it is required to promote the awareness of all Cambodian Department of Fisheries’ offices in the south of Kratie in Mekong River (including Tonle Sap Great Lake) and relevant agencies in Lao PDR and Vietnam for conservation of the dolphin,

The Department of Fisheries shall set up the dolphin conservation areas and monitoring points, which should be designated in cooperation with communities with Government support through the Royal Decree. Other solutions to protect the dolphin includes such as development of appropriate management and regulations for the dolphin watching; encouragement of community to limit contact to the dolphin; and the establishment of Community Dolphin Committee to encourage community support for the designation and protection of conservation areas.

2) Education and awareness through possible programmes
- To increase awareness of the local communities and school students towards the dolphin, fisheries and the environmental conservation.
- To increase awareness of the local provincial authorities regarding dolphin and fish conservation and to elicit their full support for conservation activities.
- To encourage a dialogue with monks in Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces to elicit their support for the dolphin conservation and to extend the general public support, because most Cambodians have unlimitedly belief on Buddhist religion. A recent monk workshop was held by Mlup Baitong − a local NGO emphasized the role of monks in effective provision of environmental information. A number of monks are already available for raising awareness as well as teaching materials. Dialogues should be initiated by monks in Kratie province and Stung Treng Province in order to facilitate the potential cooperation.
- To increase the regional cooperation on education and awareness activities.

3) Research and Surveys
- To conduct research and survey activities in order to obtain detailed and accurate information on the mortality rates and causes of the death of the Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphin.
- To collect information from relevant agencies and NGOs regarding their role in dolphin conservation.

On 23 September 2004, the Department of Fisheries held a workshop on “Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation and Management” which aimed at presenting the information on the status of the dolphin, outlining necessary conservation activities, and finalising conservation activities to be included in a strategy document. At the workshop, seven steps for the dolphin conservation were presented namely, (i) passing the new Fisheries Law; (ii) finalising the Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation Strategy; (iii) securing appropriate support for the implementation of the strategy; (iv) establishing the permanent office space for the project within the Department of Fisheries; (v) improving cooperation between Department of Fisheries and other relevant agencies; (vi) initiating a regional discussion, in particular on issues related to the migration of the dolphins between Cambodia and Lao PDR; and (vii) taking an integrated approach to river management along the most important stretch of the Mekong in order to protect its value of rich biodiversity and to improve fisheries management.

The Royal Government has established a committee that is responsible for the dolphin conservation. The committee members came from line agencies. The objectives of the committee are to conserve and protect the freshwater dolphins and monitor any activities which have potential negative impacts to the rare species. The specific tasks will be identified by a working group which will be established under a supervising of the committee.


  • State of the Basin Report – 2003, Mekong River Commission
  • State of Environmental Report 2004, Ministry of Environment; Supported by National Capacity Development Project – DANIDA

Data and information as indicated in the Section of Background was provided by senior officers of the Environmental Provincial Departments, and some parts of them were quoted from documents of which printed for general dissemination.

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