Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Safeguarding the sweet water dolphins of Mekong, an extremely rare species which risks extinction, and re-qualifying the area to boost tourism and the local economy, where still today people live on less than 50 a day. That’s the aim of a project elaborated by a United Nations team who intend to convert 200km stretch of the Mekong River into a leading eco-tourism destination. “The Mekong River dolphin is a treasure we must protect. It is the second tourism icon of Cambodia, after Angkor Wat” (Khmer temple found in the archaeological site of Angkor, near Siem Reap city), says Thok Sokhum, the Cambodian tourism official overseeing the development of what will become the Mekong Discovery Trail.
According to the WWF, Between 80 and 100 of the dolphins are managing to survive in nine deep pools between the scenic town of Kratie and Cambodia's border with Laos; Conservationists have been warning for several years that the dolphins' demise is imminent, improving villagers' livelihoods is key to ensuring their survival.
This is why the UN’s World Tourism Organisation will pinpoint areas for infrastructure development and identify activities that will provide new sources of income for fishing villages in a region where most residents survive on less than US 50 cents a day. These villages have seen their incomes plunge even further as patrols of River Guards, set up to protect the dolphins, began cracking down on gill-net fishing, strictly enforcing fishing zones and targeting illegal methods such as dynamite, cyanide and electric-shock fishing, which risk compromising the river’s delicate ecosystem.
The project, which is being funded by the Cambodian government, the UN and the Dutch development agency SNV, has two phases: The first is an urban renewal plan for the provincial capital, Kratie that aims to turn the riverside town into a gateway to the country's spectacular but rarely visited northeast. Once the Kratie facelift is finalised, the Mekong Discovery Trail will be charted. This will include cycling paths and other eco-friendly activities that planners say will primarily benefit local communities and small-scale businesses, as well as the dolphins. The number of international tourists has been rising by about 20 per cent a year over the past several years, and is on track to surpass 2 million this year.