Mermaid myths and travellers help rare Mekong dolphin
By Chhay Sophal
KAMPI, Cambodia, May 22 (Reuters) - Ripples break the bottle-green surface of the Mekong River as a pair of dolphins emerge momentarily from the cloudy depths of Southeast Asia's foremost river.
Their silvery dorsal fins glisten in the setting sun, then disappear with a splash, leaving only echoes of the high-pitched clicking of their unique sonar language.
In Cambodia, fishermen still remember when rare Irrawaddy dolphins were a relatively common sight in rivers and waterways as far flung as the great Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia's rugged northwest.
Nowadays dolphin numbers have dwindled. The Mekong River as it meanders through northeastern Cambodia is one of the few places they can still be seen as the massive waterway winds its 4,300 kilometre (2,690 miles) way toward the sea.
Fishing, hunting and increased river traffic have wreaked havoc on the dolphin's habitat, but a mix of ancient Cambodian legend and local action offers these rare aquatic animals a chance of survival.
More than 1,000 dolphins inhabited Cambodian rivers and lakes before the country lurched into bloody civil war in the 1970s, said Touch Seang Tana, Cambodia's top dolphin expert at the Department of Fisheries in Phnom Penh.
Only 80 dolphins are estimated to remain, living in the stretch of Mekong River from Cambodia's northeastern Kratie province to the far-northern border with Laos.
"Before the war, hundreds of dolphins were seen in the Tonle Sap river. Now, no one talks about dolphins there," said Touch Seang Tana.
The Tonle Sap joins the Mekong near the capital Phnom Penh.
Little is known about the Irrawaddy dolphin which grows up to 2.75 metres (nine feet) in length and is found in coastal and freshwater regions from South Asia to Northern Australia.
Scant information has kept the dolphin off the world's endangered species lists but some authorities believe they are in general decline.
In Cambodia the decline began three decades ago.
During Cambodia's civil war and the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge "killing fields" years, Mekong dolphins were shot for target practice or hunted like their relatives the whale for oil to grease weapons of war.
"Khmer Rouge soldiers killed dolphins to use the oil in their motor boats," said Touch Seang Tana.
The killing continued under successive regimes that ruled Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, said Seam Kin, deputy director of fisheries in Kratie province -- the last large dolphin habitat in Cambodia.
To catch fish, Cambodians -- who after years of warfare had more weapons than fishing nets -- have lobbed hand grenades into rivers or shot electric currents through the water, killing dolphins in the process.
Many more were trapped accidentally in fishing nets.
But mythology and taboo have always prevented them being hunted as food to extinction.
HUMAN SOUL IN DOLPHIN SKIN
Fisherman Seng Roeun casts his net from the cramped confines of his boat hollowed from the trunk of a giant tree.
Late in April the catch is good said Seng Roeun, 36, and though dolphins are blamed for eating too many fish, locals never intentionally kill the revered creatures.
There is a Cambodia story of a fair maiden who cast herself into the swirling Mekong River to escape an arranged marriage to a giant magical python.
She was swallowed by the river, but soon returned as the giant mermaid-like dolphin with human-size eyes, wide smile and enchanting sonorous sounds.
But there is more reward for protecting dolphins than just good luck, said Seng Roeun, who now earns a princely $5 each day taking groups of young backpacking tourists out in his boat to see the dolphins.
In a country where many subsist on less than a dollar a day, the modest amounts of money spent by the tourists has become key in local dolphin conservation efforts.
"We must protect the dolphins, they improve our living conditions," said 25-year-old fisherman Pho Phal.
Bonding dolphins, visitors and local fishing communities was the brainchild of aid organisation Oxfam, which began dolphin conservation in 1996 in Kratie and further north in Stung Treng province in 1998.
Dolphin numbers are now stable in both provinces, said Oxfam's Sam Sovanna. But the threat to the aquatic mammals is far from gone.
Danger looms from events unfolding beyond Cambodia's borders upstream and downstream in the Mekong and its tributaries where Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and China have built or are planning dozens of hydroelectric dams.
The concrete barriers provide vast areas with electricity but also block the primordial patterns of fish migration and the river's seasonal ebb and flow that synchronises the cycle of fish breeding and spawning.
Cambodians and Irrawaddy dolphins alike rely on those fish for food, and in the dry season the Mekong river is now dropping to levels unknown before in Cambodia, said Chhlorm Yeng, project manager for Oxfam's community fisheries project in Stung Treng.
"If the water is low, the fish will go and the dolphins cannot feed," Chhlorm Yeng said.
Says Oxfam's Sam Sovanna: "When there is no water, there are no fish. With no fish, there are no dolphins."
(Additional reporting Kevin Doyle)
05/21/02 21:45 ET
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