khsach kandal district, Kandal province – Wildlife officials are preparing to catch and move at least one of two rare Mekong dolphins that have been stranded in small ponds since the Mekong river’s high waters receded here in September, according to Phay Somany, a fisheries official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
One of the 2.8-meter long dolphins is trapped inside a 300- meter-long pond in Svay Ath Krom village—about one km from where the river currently flows. Villagers have been pumping water from the pond to irrigate nearby rice fields. The pond should be empty by January, said village Chief Bin Chao.
The other dolphin is inside a deep 100-meter-long pool that is part of a feeder stream to the Mekong. That dolphin could conceivably make its own way to the river, although the stream is very shallow in some places.
Wildlife officials and villagers are worried that the dolphins have already run out of small fish to eat. The dolphin in Svay Ath Krom village has become very thin since October, said deputy village chief Kong Vey.
The dolphins, which come to the surface every few minutes to breathe, are now a minor tourist attraction for locals, many of whom had never seen or heard of such a creature.
The normal habitat for the Mekong dolphin is in southern Laos and Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, although some Mekong dolphins make their way to the Tonle Sap river during high tide months. But dolphins haven’t been a common sight here for decades.
Kong Vey said he accidentally caught one of the dolphins in a fishing net in Svay Ath Krom village in the 1960s. He was able to quickly disentangle and release it, he said.
The fact that two dolphins have appeared in the same commune this year is “very strange,” but also “miraculous,” said villager Ta Yam.
In the early 1970s, there were more than 1,000 Mekong dolphins in the Mekong River, and the dolphins were commonly seen around Phnom Penh. But today there are only about 80 Mekong dolphins left in Cambodia and Laos, according to Colin Poole, country program coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Most Cambodians regard the Mekong dolphin as sacred, re-incarnated humans, and would never kill one on purpose, Poole said.
But large gill nets and the practice of using explosives in commercial fishing have caused the Mekong dolphin population to decline. The Khmer Rouge actively fished for the dolphin during the Pol Pot regime in order to use dolphin oil as a petroleum substitute.
“It may be the fate of the Irrawady dolphins of the Mekong River is already sealed,” a 1997 report stated. “The odds against the dolphins’ long-term survival seem high.”
A dolphin expert from Hong Kong and wildlife officials tried to capture the two dolphins in October, but were unsuccessful because the water was too deep, Phay Somany said. Officials will try again in one week, he said.
Officials from WCS, the provincial fisheries department and the Ministry of Agriculture will use a net to slowly move the dolphin to shore, where they will place it in a harness, Phay Somany said. Because dolphins are mammals, they are able to breathe out of water. But officials will keep the dolphins’ skin wet as they carry it to the Mekong River.
Buddhist monks will help with the rescue effort by offering a blessing for the dolphins just before they are released into the river, Phay Somany said.