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Cambodia diary 23: Irrawaddy dolphins, and the value of uniqueness


In 1866, Sir Richard Owen – one of Britain’s foremost anatomists and the driving force behind the creation of the Natural History Museum in London – formally named a new species of dolphin.

Less than 150 years later the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) is classified as Vulnerable – and its future is far from certain.

An Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) breaching. © WWF-Cambodia / Gerry Ryan

As its scientific name suggests, it doesn’t have the expected pointed nose or beak that we associate with dolphins but instead has a snub, rounded snout that gives it a slightly alien appearance.

Populations of the Irrawaddy dolphin are found scattered across a large area of south-east Asia living in estuaries and mangrove systems but there are also freshwater sub-populations in three major rivers: the Irrawaddy in Burma, the Mahakam in Indonesia, and along a stretch of the Mekong between Cambodia and Laos.

WWF-Cambodia has a large freshwater programme, based in the small riverside town of Kratie to help protect the estimated 85 dolphins that live in discrete pockets along this stretch of the river. These numbers are so low that this population is classified as Critically Endangered and are a top priority for support.

Selling carved wooden dolphins and river tours has grown into a small industry, supporting local people. © Mark Wright / WWF-Combodia

There is something about dolphins that appeals to people and a small industry has grown up to fulfill the wishes of tourists to glimpse them in the wild. Small-scale operators help visitors make the 15 kilometre trip north of Kratie to Kampi bouncing along dusty roads lined with traditional stilted houses and greened with mangos, bananas and palm trees.

Then, beside a row of stalls selling carved wooden dolphins, tickets are sold to go in one of the bright yellow wooden boats with their long-shaft engines that drivers nonchalantly steer with their trailing leg.

The brightly coloured river tour boats. © Mark Wright / WWF-Cambodia

The river here is almost 2 kilometres wide but – more significantly – has some of the deep pools favoured by dolphins and fish, especially in the dry season. I asked what the chances were of seeing anything “100% – for sure” I was told and, sure enough, even going down the steep steps to board, we saw our first dolphins break the surface of the millpond-smooth water.

Granted it was only for a second or two as the dorsal fin rolled forward but still exciting nonetheless. The next hour was absolutely delightful – chugging gently out past the low sand islands mid-stream to the preferred dolphin areas and being treated to occasional sightings; never for long but enough to feel excited and to feel party to something special.

Though only sighting the occasional dorsal fin for a fleeting moment, seeing these increasingly rare dolphins was a wonderful experience. © WWF-Cambodia / Hang Sereyvuth

As conservationists we are often challenged to show the ‘value’ of nature and of wildlife. I am reluctant to go too far down this line of questioning although sometimes we have no choice. Here along this stretch of the Mekong, we can definitely say that dolphins show their value.

In 2011 more than 20,000 visitors (both Cambodian and foreign) come to catch those same fleeting moments that had kept me so happy. That is 20,000 people using hotels, paying for food and transport and guides – a massive boost in an area with limited other opportunities for making money. For the people of Kratie the dolphins are important economically but I imagine that they too value them for other, non-financial, reasons.

I know economists try to give numbers to these things but really how do you put a value on beauty, or uniqueness? What price do we put on the existence of a single species? Or how do we measure the loss if it were to go extinct?

The Irrawaddy dolphins of the Mekong deserve to be protected; not because they are worth something to human beings but because they too have the right to life. And because we certainly don’t have the right to deny them that.

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