Mekong Dolphins And Their Fate

by Minitta Taosouvanh


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4,000 Islands (Siphandorn) Area (Photo by Dorn)

In a conversation with an elderly woman (someone we call “grandmother” in the local language) during my field visit, she told me that 90 percent of the locals were fishermen; they caught fish for family consumption and sale. She also said that in the past there were so many fish, so many that sometimes they could not bring all of them home because they were so heavy!  So, they dried the fish on the rock near the river bank. Money from selling fish was used to send their children to school, to build their houses, and to buy necessities and to put away in savings.

In the same conversation, another grandmother asked me, “Have you ever seen any Mekong dolphins? And do you know how big they are?”

I then became interested in the dolphin story. The grandmother continued to tell me that in the past there were too many dolphins. When villagers drove their boats out to catch fish, those dolphins would jump up by both sides of their boats. This shocked the villagers and made them worry their boats will capsize. But, in fact, it was just the nature of those dolphins to jump up in order to greet and smile at people.

At first, the villagers were scared of the dolphins, but now they are not! Dolphins have become a normal thing as they have a loving relationship with the villagers. Curious, I asked her another question, “Grandmother, why don’t villagers in the islands around the 4,000 islands [Siphandorn] eat dolphins?” “Our ancestors did not eat them; they said dolphin meat was like human flesh. You know?” said the grandmother. She added that dolphins feed their babies with milk just like humans do. She further said that dolphins have nipples like female humans, but they have babies every three years with only one baby in each batch.

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Irrawaddy Dolphins (Photo by Worldwildlife.org)

She said, “Some villagers told me that the current number of dolphins in the Mekong river has decreased,” and some academic research on dolphins also states the same.

Mekong dolphins actually live in a deep and clean river because in this area there are lots of fish, especially native species, because the dolphins feed on those fish.

This dolphin pool is a form of ecotourism, which is a very unique area in a Southern province of Laos. Upon a visit to the 4,000 islands (Siphandorn), tourists are usually invited to see Mekong dolphins. Not only are those dolphins friendly to local people, but they also create jobs and generate a large amount of income for the local people, particularly women in that area who are jobless or who do not work when their husbands go catching fish. So, these women could work as boat drivers on behalf of their husband to give a boat ride to tourists who want to see dolphins.  Every day there will be many tourists from inside or outside the country who visit the place, especially during the high tourist season of every year. A man from the village once told me, “There are 25 families who offer a boat ride service to tourists. In one year they could earn from those trips about 2,000,000 LAK per family”. Those dolphins bring income to restaurants and homestay businesses in their community as well.

Both the villagers and I still wonder why the number of the river dolphins has decreased when the villagers themselves don’t eat dolphin meat. Some people said, “There remain 6 dolphins only in the Mekong downstream in Southern Laos – Cambodia border.” People here are curious about this issue.

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Native fish caught by the locals (Photo by Bee)

A fisher man said, “This is because of development activities in the river, and the river flow has been unusual.” If this is the case, it is going to affect these 6 those dolphins because of polluted water from dam construction upstream as well as other development activities in the river. This might make native fish species unable to live in this area or eventually die.  If this happened, how would the dolphins survive without those fish. The villagers now worry that dolphins in the Mekong river will become only a story on paper and the villagers’ memory. And what about those women who are boat drivers, who take care of the tourists while seeing the dolphins? Where else would they do the same job they are doing now?  It might be harder for them to find other jobs to do because they are already familiar with their old job. And how about the local homestay businesses and restaurants? How would they run their businesses without tourists? Those dolphins not only feed 25 families in this community, but they are also a valuable fish for the survival of many other community members.


Photo Credit: Save Our Species (SOS)
(http://cmsdata.iucn.org/img/12a_29_05_dolphin_breaching_on_back_5a_85069.jpg)