The disappearance of the critically endangered Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins along a stretch of the Mekong River in southern Laos has dealt a severe blow to the local tourist industry, causing the closure of hotels, restaurants and tourist guides, said villagers living near the border with Cambodia.
The population of dolphins, which have high, rounded foreheads and no beaks, living in the area had fallen to just four in 2020, the regional conservation agency said, and two died last year. The the last died in February after being caught in a gillnet and taken to Cambodian territory.
“Before, taking Lao and foreign tourists to see the dolphins was a big deal,” said a villager who owned and operated a hotel and restaurant in the district, and who, like other interviewees, requested anonymity. For safety reasons.
“Now there are no more dolphins, no more business,” he said. “My family and my employees are suffering from the lack of income. My hotel was [their] sole source of income. »
The Irrawaddy dolphin is considered a sacred animal by Laotians and Cambodians and has been an important source of income and employment for communities involved in dolphin watching ecotourism.
Irrawaddy dolphins are still found in other parts of Southeast Asia, although they are considered endangered species.
Populations of aquatic mammals, also known as Mekong dolphins, survive downstream in Cambodia, in the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and in the Mahakam River in Indonesian Borneo, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. It is believed that there are less than 100.
Thousands of tourists from Asia and Europe have come to the area to see the dolphins, said an official with the provincial Department of Information, Culture and Tourism.
“Now some of them come here just to see the waterfall,” he told RFA.
“The impact of [disappearance] is huge,” a tour guide, who took visitors to see Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in the Mekong. “There are no more tourists coming to see the dolphins.”
A villager told RFA in April that the construction of the massive Don Sahong dam was to blame.
Before the construction of the dam, dolphins swam in the waters of Laos and Cambodia. But after construction, the structure created strong water currents in Laos, forcing dolphins to migrate to calmer, flowing Cambodian waters, he said.
A provincial official The Department of Agriculture and Forestry told RFA that his department will be requesting a new pair of Irrawaddy dolphins from Cambodia for a breeding program in the protected pool in Laos.
But the plan has not yet been realized due to a meeting postponement.
Translated by Max Avary for RFA Lao. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Malcolm Foster.