09/06/2008, 00.00
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Cambodia, "environmentally sustainable" tourism to save Mekong dolphin

Overfishing, war, and pollution have decimated the dolphins, and only a few dozen of them are left. Environmentalists have begun a project aimed at contributing to the development of the villages and to saving the dolphins, but their numbers continue to diminish.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Saving the few dozen freshwater dolphins still remaining in the Mekong River, and helping the local population by guaranteeing them a source of livelihood: this is the aim of the "ecotourism" project begun in the border area between Laos and Cambodia by the Cambodia Rural Development Team (CRDT), which has the twofold objective of protecting wildlife and providing an alternative source of income for the inhabitants of the villages.

For centuries, the waters of the Mekong River - which crosses China, Laos, and Cambodia, before reaching the ocean in Vietnam - were the uncontested habitat of thousands of freshwater dolphins. The Sino-Indian War and the increase of industrialization, together with high pollution levels, have decimated the species, only a few dozen of which survive; 71, according to the latest count provided by the World Wildlife Fund.

The village of Sambor, in the north of Cambodia, is one of the places selected by the CRDT as a model of environmentally sustainable development: tourists are given the opportunity to live in contact with the local population, to help the inhabitants protect the natural habitat of the dolphins, and to teach a little English to the children. The most frequently requested activities include well digging, sewer construction, and work in the fields.

The experiment promoted by the activists is intended to save the dolphins from extinction by radically changing the habits of the inhabitants of the village, who for decades have used aggressive fishing methods like explosives and high-capacity nets. Now the freshwater dolphins are seen as a resource to be "exploited" in order to attract foreign capital and tourism; the visitors pay 60 US dollars for three days in contact with nature, and the money is used to support the local population. In a country in which half the population lives on a dollar a day, the inhabitants of the village earn five dollars a day by providing food (two dollars) and lodging (three dollars) for the visitors.

But recent studies have demonstrated that if the benefit for individuals is beyond question, the same cannot be said for the dolphins: in spite of a small increase in their numbers in the initial phase of the project, it is not yet clear whether this is truly effective for preserving the species. Scientists affirm that a new and not yet identified disease is spreading rapidly, killing the offspring. Researchers fear that the new virus - caused by pollution in the water, infested with chemical agents and the runoff from gold mining projects - could soon lead to the total extinction of the dolphins.

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