Irrawaddy dolphins can be seen in three major rivers in Southeast Asia: the Ayeyarwady (Myanmar), the Mahakam (Indonesian Borneo) and the Mekong. In Myanmar, the dolphin is known for its close relations with local fishers as they often help to drive shoals of fish towards fishing nets in exchange for the fishers throwing them fish.
At present, these gentle and good-natured creatures are facing a number of threats to their survival and habitats. These threats range from contaminated water from industrial and agricultural activities, run-off from gold and other mining, entanglement in fishing gear, and changes in habitat due to coastal construction or river traffic. More recently, dolphins are also being threatened by the increased use of electric fishing devices and the over-fishing of many rivers .
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “Red List” of threatened species, the Irrawaddy dolphin is now classified from “vulnerable” to “endangered” as the numbers have decreased by half across Southeast Asia over the past 60 years because of economic development activities. However, the Irrawaddy dolphins in Myanmar have seen a moderate rise in populations over the past three years.
Irrawaddy dolphins and their relationship with fishers
Irrawaddy dolphins move inshore by following the tides into the river mouth and when the tides move out, they chase the movements of the fish for food. They have immediately recognizable, charismatic rounded face and head with no beak. They are similar to baby belugas with only a dorsal fin. They have grey color all over but lighter on the belly. The dorsal fin is small but their flippers are long and large with rounded tips and large tails and curved leading edges.
In Myanmar and elsewhere, dolphins are known to be an important indicator of the health of freshwater resources. The dolphin schools often have close relations with fishers and fishing boats. Dolphins mainly prefer nearshore habitats and freshwater resources and mostly restrict themselves to specific geographical areas or habitats. The restricted habitats are also the reason they face huge risks as they often cannot move away from threats such as pollution, habitat changes from coastal construction, disturbance from vessel traffic and getting entangled in fishing nets.
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This article was produced with support from the SEI Asia Media Grant.