Environmental NGO Fears for Mekong Dolphin

The controversial Don Sahong dam in Laos could lead to the extinction of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, environmental group WWF said Thursday, calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to lobby Laos to suspend construction on the project.

The dam, which is scheduled to start construction in the coming months, has been heavily criticized as it will block the only channel in which fish can migrate year-round and is expected to irrevocably change the biodiversity of the lower mainstream Mekong River.

“The WWF calls for the suspension of the Don Sahong dam…. I also appeal to Prime Minister [Hun Sen] to [help] suspend the Don Sahong dam during the Mekong River Commission’s head of State Summit in April,” WWF country director Chhith Sam Ath said Thursday.

The six dolphins that remain in a pool just a few hundred meters from the planned construction site will likely die before the dam is finished, said Gerry Ryan, author of the paper, The Don Sahong and the Mekong Dolphin, published Thursday.

To navigate the murky waters of the Mekong and find prey the Irrawaddy dolphin relies on ultrasound, a sense that would be severely damaged by the construction work.

“Millions of tons of rocks will be excavated with the use of explosives…the explosives would kill them immediately or lead to damage that will make it impossible for them to navigate underwater,” Mr. Ryan said.

Incapable of finding prey, the dolphins would slowly starve to death.

Increased boat traffic, toxic substance spills, and a reduced availability of dolphin prey could precipitate the extinction of the entire species, Mr. Ryan found in his report.

The demise of the dolphins, he said, would also mean the loss of millions of dollars in ecotourism, which was valued at $4 million in 2008 and attracted 20,000 international tourists in 2012, WWF said.

Phoy Vanna, deputy chief of community-based ecotourism in Stung Treng province, expressed his doubt that tourists would still visit the area if the dolphins were extinct.

“The dolphins attract the tourists to my areas, and provides me with an income,” Mr. Vanna said.

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