04/24/2018, 14.19
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Phnom Penh and environmentalists hail the turnaround of the Mekong dolphin

The number of animals has increased from 80 to 92 in the past two years after being in constant decline, from 200 in 1997 to 80 in 2015. The turnaround is due to river patrol teams and the removal of illegal gillnets. However, the recovery is threatened by poaching and major infrastructure projects.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The population of Cambodia’s critically endangered river dolphin is growing for the first time in decades, Cambodian authorities and conservationists said on Monday, hailing a major turnaround for the freshwater species.

The Irrawaddy dolphins (pictured), known for their bulging foreheads and short beaks, once swam through much of the Mekong River but in recent decades have been limited to a 190 km stretch from central Cambodia to its northern border with Laos.

The population has been in steady decline since the first census was taken in 1997, dropping from 200 that year to 80 in 2015 due to habitat loss and destructive fishing practices.

But new births – including three calves in 2018 – and a decline in deaths appear to have put the species on the path to recovery, with their numbers rising from 80 to 92 in the past two years, this according to a survey by Cambodian authorities and the global conservation group WWF, which called the rebound a “historic increase”.

The group attributed the turnaround to the work of river patrol teams and the removal of illegal gillnets – vertical mesh fishing nets that are left in the water for long periods and can trap and drown dolphins.

Tourist boat operators were also hailed as a “secret ingredient” for their help in reporting poaching and illegal gillnets to authorities.

But conservationists and government officials warn that significant threats remain, including other illegal fishing practices involving grenades, electronic gear and poisonous bait.

Major infrastructure projects, such as dams in Laos, also endanger the animals’ fragile recovery.

Eng Cheasan, director of Cambodia’s fisheries administration, hailed the dolphins as a “national treasure” and said the government was committed to “eliminating all threats to the survival of this species”.

Cambodia is home to the largest population of Irrawaddy dolphins, which can also be found in rivers and lakes in Myanmar, Indonesia, India and Thailand.

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