While they’re not as populous as they can be, the number of river dolphins in Cambodia is at its highest since the 1970s. The elusive dolphins are difficult to track for researchers, and even more difficult for tourists to capture on camera. With the increase in population, hopefully they will be seen more by those travelling through the river.
The Irrawaddy dolphins are not like their marine counterparts; they don’t excitedly jump out of the water, but rather partially breach the surface to breathe before diving deep below. Their elusive nature and the murky waters of the rivers make it difficult for researchers to track the animals, so not a lot is known about them. They usually dive deep (150 feet) to where there is more food and less disturbance, and scientists don’t want to stress out the shy creatures by constantly following them.
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For decades, the Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River were on the brink of extinction. Their numbers began to decline in the 1970s due to the violence during the Khmer Rouge and the following years. The dolphins were hunted as a source of food, and net fishing caused a lot of them to drown. Eventually, the dolphins that swam the river in the thousands were reduced to fewer than 100.
Since then, conservation efforts were implemented by the local government and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Thanks to bans on using poison and dynamite in fishing, cracking down on illegal activities, and promotion of ecotourism, the dolphins slowly came back. The newest survey presents that there are 92 Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in the river again, and researchers were able to identify 12 new calves.
It is, however, too early to celebrate. The population is still too low to be considered safe for future survival. There are also many new threats to their recovery, and the planned construction of a new megawatt dam in Sambor is the main one; it will take away a significant portion of the dolphins’ natural habitat. The government will need to find a way to protect these animals while creating new infrastructure if they want their ecosystems to continue to thrive.