May 24, 2013
By Jeff Opperman
New York Times
Jeff Opperman, a senior freshwater scientist with the Nature Conservancy, is taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip down the Mekong River in Southeast Asia with his wife and two children, ages 8 and 10. Previous posts can be found here.
The Irrawaddy dolphin has been called the “smiling face” of the Mekong River. Viewed straight on, its mouth forms a quizzical grin. A river couldn’t ask for a more charming mascot: Even a high-definition photo of the dolphin looks like a happy-go-lucky cartoon character from a Pixar movie.
For years, I’ve told my kids a bedtime story about a girl who lives in a Mekong village and one day meets a magical river dolphin that can shape-change into a boy. When the star of the story first breached in front of our boat, we held our breath.
Later we stood on a high bank overlooking a vast gunmetal gray pool that mirrored a washed-out sky. Pairs of dolphins breached and frolicked below us. Their whimsical play stood in sharp contrast to the dolphins’ grim reality, and I thought how they were fortunate that their minds, though intelligent, weren’t burdened with oral histories that chronicled their terrifying decline or statistics that quantified their perilous future.
Only 80 to 90 of these dolphins still swim the Mekong, concentrated within deep pools that stretch like beads on a 100-mile string of river in Cambodia, from the border with Laos and south to the town of Kratie (over all, a few thousand Irrawaddy dolphins are spread throughout Southeast Asia in rivers and brackish estuaries).
Once far more numerous and wide-ranging in the lower Mekong basin, the dolphin population declined precipitously in the 1970s, and current numbers are down to a few percent of the original population.
Conservationists who seek to maintain the free-flowing Mekong can draw upon a delightful symbol — the dolphin — and a powerful statistic: Tens of millions of people depend on the protein of the Mekong, an organic machine that churns out the “ecosystem service” of fish harvests valued in the billions. In this 100-mile stretch of river, the symbol and the service have a tough time cohabitating. Today, the primary cause of dolphin mortality is entanglement in fishing nets.
Gordon Congdon was trying to reconcile the Mekong’s symbol and service. For the past four years (he just recently returned to the United States), Gordon has been WWF-Cambodia’s freshwater conservation specialist. Managing dolphin conservation programs was a key part of his job.
Gordon and his wife, Linda, met us at the Cambodian border crossing and were our hosts for the next four days on the river. Our first night in Cambodia, we stayed in a small village overlooking Anlong Cheuteal (the “pool of the tree”), a deep section of river below Khone Falls at the Laos border that harbors an isolated population of dolphins that is now believed to number between six and eight.
Within the stretch of river inhabited by dolphins, Gordon and WWF worked with fishermen to find alternatives to gill nets. Because gill nets are among the most efficient ways to catch fish, simply prohibiting this gear would pose a hardship for fishermen. WWF is working with the fishermen to diversify their sources of food and income.
“It’s tough,” Gordon said. “These other options for fisherman have to be real; they can’t just be window dressing.”
At the village, we met Cham Buntheon, who works for the Association of Buddhists for the Environment. Gordon and Cham provided environmental educational materials and training to Buddhist monks, and in turn, the monks teach villagers about the value of dolphins (spiritual, but also as the foundation for the most important tourism in the region) and how to reduce the frequency of dolphin deaths in nets.
The program capitalizes on the monks’ trusted position in society and the fact that they already make the rounds of remote villages, allowing them to function like orange-clad extension agents.
Cham emphasized that because of strong concordance between the principles of conservation and those of Buddhism, the environmental education program is planting seeds in fertile ground: “The Buddha was born in the forest and attained enlightenment in the forest, and he lived as many different animals, including an elephant and a turtle, before being born human.”
Our last days on the river became a tour of a wildlife fauna that also seemed to be winding down its last days on the river. We left the dolphin pool and headed downriver, stopping along the way at a small island that is a nesting site for river terns. The terns were once widely distributed throughout the lower basin, but now this one island supports nearly all the tern nests along the Mekong. Last year there were 26.
A man walked up and offered us some watermelon. Gordon told us that he was a guardian on the island, hired by WWF to watch over the nesting area. Elsewhere on the Mekong the terns’ nests — always constructed on sandbars — are disturbed by children, dogs, buffalo and all the other activity that concentrates on the edge between land and water.
Later, we tramped through the forest to find a white-shouldered ibis nest, hopefully sheltering reinforcements for a Mekong population of only 130 birds (though that still ranks as the third-largest population of white-shouldered Ibis in the world).
Our boat driver, Vanna, told us he grew up near Anlong Cheuteal, and he reminisced that as a teenager he saw a few tigers, and many evenings he’d watch elephants emerge from the forest edge to bathe and drink in the Mekong across from his village. These animals hang on in Cambodia by the slimmest of threads. As Vanna is about my age, his tales aren’t exactly ancient history, only as distant as my memories of seeing the Replacements and R.E.M. on tour in the 1980s.
And now the Mekong River faces an even greater transformation — one that, unlike hunting pressure, is essentially irreversible — with dozens of dams under construction or planned for its main stem and tributaries. The dolphin pools, the terns’ sandbars, the floodplain forests of the ibis — not to mention the ecosystem service of the fishery — would all decline, degrade or disappear if all the dams are built.
In my final post, I’ll describe the science behind some optimism that a balanced solution can be found — and the frustrating reality of how decisions are made.