In hopes to save dolphins in the Mekong River from extinction, the government’s fisheries department has drafted a sub-decree declaring the dolphins part of Cambodia’s national heritage, a distinction that would offer them legal protection.
“Dolphins are our national resource,” said Nao Thuok, deputy director of the fisheries department. “If we don’t conserve them, they will disappear.
“If we can conserve them,” he added, “there is a very high potential to attract tourists.”
By all accounts, the river dolphin population has plummeted over the past three decades.
In the early 1970s, there were believed to be about 1,000 dolphins in the Mekong, but many were killed by the Khmer Rouge, which used the oil in the dolphins as a petroleum substitute.
Today, there are about 60 dolphins in Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, fisheries officials say.
They usually migrate from the Mekong to Tonle Sap river during the high-tide season, Nao Thuok said.
While in the deeper pools of the Tonle Sap, dolphins are vulnerable to large gill nets and dynamite fishing.
Kratie Second Deputy Governor Kham Phoeun said provincial authorities are trying to protect dolphins by prohibiting barges from going through dolphin habitats. In February 1999, a young dolphin died after being hit by the propellers of a barge.
Provincial authorities also have banned large fishing nets in dolphin habitats and are cracking down on unlicensed fishing equipment, Kham Phoeun said.
But Mak Sithirith, environmental coordinator for NGO Forum, said not enough is being done. “The government seems to pay no attention to the dolphins and their advantage,” he said.
Several villages along the Mekong are now implementing their own conservation programs, modeled after programs in Laos, Mak Sithirith said.
Since last year, Community Aid Abroad has helped more than two dozen villages set up dolphin conservation zones.