The last known endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin on a stretch the Mekong River near Cambodia’s border with Laos died this week, after it was reported snagged in a fishing net, wildlife officials and villagers in the Southeast Asian countries said.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of the last dolphin … near the border of Laos,” Cambodia’s Fisheries Conservation Department said on its Facebook page.
Despite international efforts to protect it, the Irrawaddy dolphin sub-population in northeastern Cambodia “still faced serious pressure from human activities, the change of the Mekong water flow, and climate change, causing the total population to gradually decline, and the last individual died on February 15, 2022,” it said.
Listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, populations of the aquatic mammal, also known as the Mekong River dolphin, survive downriver in Cambodia, in its namesake Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and in Indonesia.
According to the AP news agency, the first census of Irrawaddy dolphins in Cambodia in 1997 put their total population at about 200, a number that fell to 89 in 2020.
“The remaining population of ‘critically endangered’ river dolphins in the Cambodia section of the Mekong is now stable, whilst still facing serious challenges,” AP quoted a statement from Lan Mercado, Asia-Pacific director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as saying. “This latest river dolphin death highlights how vulnerable these and other species remain.”
The dolphin—described by the WWF as 25-year-old male, 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) long and weighing 110 kilograms (242 pounds) —was reported in local Cambodia media to have been seen last week struggling in a net.
Up the river and across the border in southern Laos, residents of the village nearest to the Mekong River freshwater dolphin habitat confirmed news of the death had reached the region and described conditions in recent years that led to the mammal’s decline.
“The one that just died was the last freshwater dolphin in this area,” said a resident of Hang Sadam village. “There will be no more dolphins in Laos because they have run out of food and the ecosystem has been destroyed.”
In last several years, three freshwater dolphins were been found in the Mekong River in southern Laos, but two died last year and Tuesday death finished them off, according to the WWF.
“When they didn’t have food, they’d wander into other territory where people fish or even use explosive to catch fish. That’s why they’ve all died,” added the Hang Sadam villager.
A fisherman in Hang Sadam village told RFA’s Lao Service the last half decade has brought dramatic change, particularly from dams on the Mekong.
“The Mekong River dams, including Don Sahong Dam in the area, must have had a role in the demise of the dolphin. When the dams hold water, the Mekong River will be dry, or sometimes, the dolphins get caught in people’s nets and die.”
Don Sahong Dam is one of two operational Mekong mainstream dams in Laos, which has three others in the planning or early construction stages as the government looks to generate revenue by selling the electricity from its hydropower projects to its neighbors. China operates 11 mega-dams on the river, with at least two more planned.