Irrawaddy Dolphins: The Smiling Faces of the Mekong

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  • Date: April 17, 2014

The trademark curved mouth of the Irrawaddy dolphin led to the animal’s nickname: the “smiling face of the Mekong.” They travel in groups of no more than 10 and solitary dolphins are rarely seen. Unfortunately, populations of this rare species are shrinking. Dangerous fishing practices and habitat degradation from the development of damsA dam is used to regulate the height of water surface or to store water., deforestation and mining are putting the future of Irrawaddy dolphins at great risk.

Learn more about the species and what WWF is doing to help:

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Where do Irrawaddy dolphins live?

Irrawaddy dolphins are an unusual species with small populations found in Southeast Asia, ranging from India’s Chilka Lake to the Malampaya Sound in the Philippines and freshwater rivers like the Ayeyarwady in Myanmar, the Mahakam in Indonesian Borneo, and the Mekong between Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao PDR.

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What are the biggest threats to Irrawaddy dolphins?

Irrawaddy dolphins are directly threatened by bycatch, when they accidentally get caught in fishing gear meant to net other fish.

Research has found many dolphins, especially calves, die from unclear causes. Researchers have found contaminants like DDT and PCBs, but it is not clear if this is having an impact on the dolphins, or if they are dying from something else. These pollutants may also pose a health risk to human populations living along the Mekong that consume the same fish and waterClimate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass ... as the dolphins.

Dams also threaten the survival of these dolphins. In Lao PDR, the proposed Don Sahong hydropowerHydro power is electrical energy produced through the power of moving water. Power obtained from the (typically gravitational) movement of water. projectProject is an intervention designed to achieve specific objectives within specified resources and implementation schedules, often within the framework of a broader program. (Glossary Monitoring and Evaluation Terms; MERG Monitoring & Evaluation Reference Group and UNAIDS) is located just one kilometer upstream of the core habitat for Mekong dolphins, which could hasten their extinction from the Mekong River. Today, between only 78 and 91 individuals are estimated to exist in the entire Mekong River.

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How does WWF help Irrawaddy dolphins?

WWF works with local communities to develop fishery management zones to help sustain the fish population and conserve the Irrawaddy dolphins. We also conduct research to determine how the dolphin population is fairing and the impact of climate changeClimate change is a lasting change in weather patterns over long periods of time. It can be a natural phenomena and and has occurred on Earth even before people inhabited it. Quite different is a current situation that is also referred to as climate change, anthropogenic climate change, or ... on the Mekong River. WWF ensures sustainable hydropower development to maintain the ecosystemA system of living organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment. The boundaries of what could be called an ecosystem are somewhat arbitrary, depending on the focus of interest or study. Thus, the extent of an ecosystem may range from very small spatial scales to, ... integrity of the Mekong river.

Why save dolphins?

The dolphins are an important indicator of the healthThe health status of millions of people is projected to be affected through, for example, increases in malnutrition; increased deaths, diseases and injury due to extreme weather events; increased burden of diarrhoeal diseases; increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher ... and sound management of the freshwater resources, and their decline could signal a potentially devastating decline in the health of the entire river ecosystem. Mekong dolphins also have great cultural significance to local communities and bring tangible livelihoodSustainable livelihood includes job opportunities that are of a non-invasive type, and exclude extensive felling, heavy fishery, mono-cultures and other activities than permanently harm the environment; it also includes an lifestyle that takes care of any gives assets, such as fresh water or ... benefits. Dolphin-watching tours are a major contributor to growth, bringing in much needed income to local communities.

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