Mekong Eye

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The battle for the ‘mother of rivers’

Scientists are praising the discovery of new species and rare dolphins in the Mekong region, but overfishing and dams loom to disrupt habitats says a special report by the Ecologist.

Irrawaddy dolphin
Irrawaddy dolphin is among the many endangered species threatened by dam construction along the Lower Mekong River. (WWF)

By Nosmot Gbadmosi

Stung Treng, Cambodia, May 26, 2017

The Ecologist

In Thai and Lao languages, Mekong roughly translates as ‘mother of rivers.’ As one of the world’s largest waterways it stretches more than 4,000 kilometers thrusting through China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea.

For wildlife enthusiasts in the region, these are exciting times. A horned lizard and rainbow-headed snake were among 163 delightful new species documented last year by scientists alongside 10 endangered Irrawaddy dolphin calves. Fewer than 90 Irrawaddy dolphins exist on the planet.

But all is not well.

In January 2016, build on the 260-megawatt hydroelectric Don Sahong dam began less than a mile from Laos’ border with Cambodia. The area is home to a trans-boundary dolphin pool where numbers are critical. Just three remain. A figure the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns is ‘no longer viable. (Functionally Extinct)

In recent months the dolphins have moved out of their two-kilometer preservation into areas where illegal fishing methods are rife. Villagers blame the daily boom of dynamite used to blast rocks in dam construction.

“Even when you are inside the water, it’s very loud,” says Mekong river ranger, Sok Laing, responsible for patrolling the dolphins’ protected area. “The noise is too loud and dolphins need to live in a place that is quiet,” he adds.

It’s a worry for villagers who rely on the thousands of tourists the dolphins bring yearly.

“Only local (protected) fishing is allowed in this part of the river but where the dolphins are now, no one is responsible for controlling,” says Bu Maen, a 27-year-old boat driver.

His village, Anlong Svay Thom, in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, lies just south of the dam. It’s a smattering of wooden frame houses built on stilts in the Khmer fashion that overlook the river.

A new road was constructed to provide greater access to the secluded village. This boosted business for those driving tourists across the waters.

“Customers increased because of the road but now the dolphins have gone I don’t know what will happen,” Maen says.

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