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Pollution Pushing Mekong Dolphins To Extinction: WWF

June 18, 2009

A new WWF report released Thursday finds that pollution in Asia’s Mekong River is putting dolphins in Laos and Cambodia at risk of extinction.  But the report has sparked angry denials from governments who question the validity of the findings.

Just 64 to 76 Irrawaddy dolphins remain in the Mekong River after dangerous levels of mercury, pesticides and other environmental contaminants were found in more than 50 calves that have died since 2003, the report said.

The Mekong River flows through Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. The river is one of just five freshwater habitats in the entire world for the Irrawaddy dolphin. Cambodia is believed to support its largest remaining population.

“These pollutants are widely distributed in the environment and so the source of this pollution may involve several countries through which the Mekong River flows,” said WWF veterinary surgeon Verne Dove in a press statement.

But the Cambodian government official responsible for caring for the country’s Irrawaddy dolphins disputed these figures, saying that “about 150 to 160″ dolphins remained in the Mekong.  The official accused the WWF of using flawed research methodology.

“It’s big trouble — they (the WWF) should resign. They should leave Cambodia,” Touch Seang Tana, chairman of Cambodia’s Commission to Conserve Mekong River Dolphins and Develop Eco-tourism, told the AFP news agency.

“They published this without consulting me, and I’m the authority here,” he added.

Tana said he did not believe the river contained the pollutants listed in the report.

Irrawaddy dolphins, which resemble porpoises with their pale grey skin and blunt beaks, need an immediate health program in Cambodia and Laos to combat the effects of pollution on their immune systems, the organization said.

The WWF speculated that gold mining activities might be to blame for the high levels of mercury found in some of the dead dolphins. Inbreeding among the small dolphin population may have also played a role in weakening the immune systems in the dead young dolphins, all of which were less than two weeks old, the WWF said.

“The Mekong River dolphins are isolated from other members of their species and they need our help,” WWF Cambodia country director Seng Teak told the AFP.

The mammals “can show remarkable resilience” if their habitat is protected, he added.

The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphins, which live within a 118-mile section of the river in Cambodia and Laos, have been on the critically endangered list since 2004, the WWF said.  The dolphins congregate in a small number of the river’s natural deep-water pools.

Thousands of Irrawaddy dolphins once lived in the Mekong.  Despite being considered sacred, their numbers have declined due to illegal fishing nets and Cambodia’s long civil conflict in which dolphin blubber was used to power lamps and lubricate machines.

However, the Cambodian government has been promoting dolphin watching to entice eco-tourism, and has started cracking down on use of the illegal fishing nets. It hopes these efforts, along with establishing protected areas, will increase the number of Irrawaddy dolphins within a few years.

The Mekong is the largest inland fishery in the world, producing roughly 2.5 million tons of fish valued at more than $2 billion each year.  The river also provides 80 percent of the animal protein for the 60 million people who live along its lower basin, the AFP news agency said.

Image Caption: Irrawaddy Dolphin on Mekong River at Krati©, Cambodia. Courtesy Jean-Claude Durk – Wikipedia

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