A new survey from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) Myanmar on the population of the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) has confirmed their stable population in Myanmar, now counting 61 adult and 4 baby dolphins.
The population size of Irrawaddy dolphins is now used as a marker for the overall health of the river basin. This iconic species used to thrive along the major water basin of the country, the Irrawaddy river, from which it gets it’s name. However, major declines have been seen in the area they inhabit, and conservation activities have been urgently needed.
In order to prevent the extinction of the dolphins, in December 2005 the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area was established as the first national aquatic protected area in Myanmar by the Department of Fisheries with the support from WCS.
For a 74 kilometers long river stretch starting from Mingun – next to Mandalay – to Kyaukmyaung and Singu townships upstream, the dolphin’s key habitat and breeding areas now benefit from a stronger protection against illegal fishing methods such as gill nets and electric fishing, and also excessive boat traffic, pollution, and sedimentation.
Thanks to these mitigating measures, in 2010 the number of dolphins has remained stable in recent years, and five births have been noted in the last two years. Sadly though the deaths of four dolphins have also been tracked by the conservation team during the same period. The analysis of these dead dolphins corpses revealed in most cases the signs of boat collision or entanglement in unattended, and illegal, fishing nets.
The renewed concerns for the dolphins has taken place along with the opening up of Myanmar, and the newly thriving economic development of the country. Increases in boat traffic, and gold mining are expected to be affecting the dolphins, and the impacts of other forms of illegal fishing, especially electric fishing, are expected to be negative.
“We strive to stop electric fishing,” said Kyaw Hla Thein, project coordinator at WCS Myanmar, “Many fishermen still use this illegal method to boost their short-term incomes, but doing so severely damages the river ecosystem, depletes fish stocks and threatens the lives of the dolphins.”
The Irrawaddy dolphin population is not only critically endangered, but also part of a biologically unique human-dolphin cooperative fishery, a traditional practice for at least 150 years.
In Myanmar, this amazingly clever species has learned to fish in a mutually beneficial way together with cast net fishermen. Through an elaborate communication system of calls and signals made by both dolphins and fishermen, the dolphins herd shoals of fish towards the fisherman’s nets, thus increasing the catch.
Such cooperative fishing is part of Myanmar’s rich natural and cultural heritage and an inspiring example of a symbiotic relationship between man and nature.
Since 2015, WCS has developed a new holistic approach to the Irrawaddy dolphin conservation, which includes sustainable economic development for the communities living inside the protected area.
“We developed community-based ecotourism in order to create a link between tourism and conservation, while also promoting concrete perspectives of sustainable economic development.” said Thant Zin, Ecotourism Manager at WCS Myanmar, “Our goal is to protect this fragile ecosystem by empowering local communities to provide visitors with a quality educational experience focusing on the uniqueness of the human-dolphin cooperative fishing, local wildlife and traditional culture.”