Death of last river dolphin in Laos rings alarm bells for Mekong population

Earlier this year, the last Irrawaddy river dolphin in a transboundary pool between Cambodia and Laos became entangled in fishing gear and died, signifying the extinction of the species in Laos.

Known only by his identity code, ID#35 was the last individual of a doomed subpopulation of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris). He was the sole occupant of a deep pool in the Mekong River that spans the border between Cambodia and Laos, and fought for several weeks against lacerations to his tail from entanglement in illegal fishing gear. He had been struggling to swim, let alone to feed himself.

Mortally wounded, ID#35 died as many of his kin before him. Yet there was a deeper significance to the moment his pale and bloated body washed up on a riverbank in mid-February 2022: his death confirmed that the Irrawaddy dolphin is extinct in Laos.

Cetacean specialists have documented the loss of the dolphins from the Chheu Teal transboundary pool for years. In 1993, there were 17 individuals living in the pool. By 2009, the subpopulation had dwindled to seven; three years later to six; and by 2018, only three remained. In 2021, photo identification surveys led by Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration and WWF confirmed that ID#35 was all alone.

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