The Irawaddy River Dolphins – More than just a tourist attraction

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Dolphins are always a crowd-pleaser. They’re playful, cute and curious. They capture the imagination of adults and children alike, and I still spend inordinate amounts of time on the bow of a ferry watching out for their crescent fins. But dolphins are also intelligent group hunters – top predators perfectly adapted to their environment. Crucially, they are also an indicator of a healthy ecosystem.

Where are they in Cambodia?

Once numerous, the Dolphin population here is at a critical level. Kratie, or Kraceh is a small town on the Mekong river, around 7 hours by bus from either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. It is a small town of less than 40,000 people. There are some wonderful, crumbling French Colonial Buildings and a typical Cambodian market selling everything from live chickens to skin lightening cream, all the way to “I love Cambodia” t-shirts for the tourists. Aside from an evening stroll along the waterfront there really isn’t that much to do here. Not that much, except for watching the dolphins.

Kratie is the place to go to see the Irawaddy River Dolphin in Cambodia. This small grey mammal is actually an oceanic dolphin that has adapted to brackish inland waters, but is not a true river dolphin1. It looks somewhat like a grey beluga, with a large round head and no protruding beak.

It tends to be a little shyer than its open water cousins, keeping a wider distance and not riding the bow waves of boats like some of its cousins. If you are seriously lucky, you may see them spy-hopping, but don’t go expecting a full breach!

Spotting the Dolphins Yourself.

Jumping Irrawaddi dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris). Pictured at Mekong river, Kampi, Kratié, Cambodia in 2011.
Jumping Irrawaddi dolphin at Mekong river, Kampi, Kratié, Cambodia in 2011.

Despite being a small town, there are still too many boats and shipping going on in Kratie for the shy animals, so you’ll need to head up to Kampi to see them. Head north around 16km north to where a series of islands break up the scenery. You can get here by Remorque/Tuk-tuk or by private car. Everyone in Kratie knows the place, so finding it won’t be a problem. If you’re particularly active you can hire a bicycle and get there yourself – Just head north on the main road out of Kratie until you see the giant dolphin statue which is hard to miss. Between 3 or 4 people the price should be pretty negligible at around USD 10-15 for the trip. At said dolphin statue you’ll buy tickets for a boat, either USD 9 for a single person, or USD 7 per person for more of you. Don’t ask me how they worked those numbers out, but these are set by the government so there’s no room for bartering here.

The trip is quite short, between 60-90 minutes. For longer trips or special requests you should bring a Cambodian with you as you won’t find an English Speaker at the viewing area. The driver will then take you out to the sand islands, and upon spotting a pod of dolphins he’ll bank or tie up to a tree while the dolphins are near. I was quite happy to find that our driver used the engine only once after our first sighting of dolphins, and kept it off the rest of the time, letting the dolphins come near us instead of chasing them.

If you want to be particularly environmentally conscious and eliminate the boat noise, I heard good things about Sorya Kayaking Adventures. You’ll have to go in the low water season (Late February to July), as the water is too fast and dangerous to kayak when the water is high. There are no chain hotels here, so the money you spend is going to the right place, but if you want to make an extra bit of difference check out CRDTours. They have a guesthouse (Le Tonle) and tour company which are both social enterprises to fund training and community-based tourism in Kratie and along the Mekong River.

Traditional Views.

The Irawaddy River Dolphin is not just a tourist attraction or an additional source of income for fisherman.  The Irawaddy Dolphin is a sacred animal, according to folk tales. The story I heard was that a woman was being chased by an evil force and in desperation threw herself into the river. The river heeded her distress, and turned her into a dolphin, able to escape the evil chasing her2. Even now many people hold the dolphins here in high regard.

This regard is critical. In a country where environmental concerns are still very low on the priority list, the high status of the dolphins means there is hope. Irawaddy Dolphins here are flagship and umbrella species. Increased protection for them is increased protection for the whole ecosystem, from birds, to vegetation, to fish3Irrawady Dolphin scientific drawing

What do the Dolphins need?

Being large mammals, they require a large habitat. While they used to be numerous throughout Cambodia, found along the length of the whole Mekong there are now just 854 individuals that inhabit a single stretch of river between Kratie and the 4,000 islands in Laos. In the dry season, when the rains have stopped and the river level has dropped several metres this range is further restricted to just 9 of the deepest pool areas. Continuous dam construction and modification of the river, such as the Don Sahong Dam (with plans for up to 9 more in Laos) could spell disaster in the dry season5. If there is a drought or lack of rain during the monsoon then more water is withheld upriver, shrinking the dolphin’s habitat further.

Irawaddy Dolphins also need abundant food to survive, and even more to successfully raise calves. Lack of prey fish, either as a knock-on effect of Dam construction, or simply from over-fishing spells trouble for everyone. In Cambodia common fishing practices do not help. Gillnets, poison fishing and even explosive-fishing are frequent6. The Mekong River is already overexploited, with little effective management or policing, and frequently unreported catch levels. While the government has made some progress in this area, there is a long way to go.

Additionally, even though dolphins are sacred here, this only protects them from being targeted, and they still end up as by-catch. Explosive fishing interferes with their sensitive echo-location, poison kills them or their calves, and gillnets across the river can stop the dolphins from moving to a safer area. Worse still, dolphins that get caught in these nets frequently drown, as cutting a dolphin free costs a fisherman his catch and the time spend to repair his nets. In a country where a wages can be as low as USD 200 a month7 the pressure to feed your family takes precedence. Sadly this leads to a mortality rate as high as one dolphin every month8. On such a small population, this is simply unsustainable.

Why do the Dolphins matter?

Kratie, Cambodia
Kratie, Cambodia, James Antrobus

So what happens if the dolphins disappear? The small amount of tourism here will disappear for certain, as those tourists who stopped over on the way to Laos will just overnight further north at Stung Treng. This won’t affect the country – Angkor Wat alone brings in 2 million foreign visitors a year9, while less than 25,000 visit the town of Kratie10. But it isn’t just foreign money that will dry up.



Kratie, Cambodia
Kratie, Cambodia, James Antrobus

Dolphins are an indicator here. A decline in the Irrawaddy Dolphin on the Mekong is a distress call that things on the river are not right. This should be heeded by everyone who relies on this resource, as a large number do. Despite having only a small coastline, the consumption of fish in Cambodia can exceed 50 percent of the total animal protein intake11. The vast majority of this is from the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake. This mirrors the situation with the marine environment worldwide, where the FAO estimate that nearly 3 billion people12, largely in developing countries such as Cambodia are reliant on fish for their primary source of protein. In these countries there is no safety net, no welfare and no benefits system outside of your friends and family. If the country runs out of fish, a food crisis will follow quickly.

Is it too late?

Whether the Dolphin’s decline on the Mekong can be reversed is yet to be seen. Greater awareness is being promoted, and increased tourism means increased incentive to keep the dolphins alive and find better practices. There is reason to believe that it isn’t too late. Two new dolphin calves were spotted just last August13, so the possibility of a revival is there. Visiting Kratie isn’t just about preserving the dolphins, but all of the Cambodian people that depend on the river’s resources.

JJoshua Clayton headshotosh is a Marine and Freshwater Biology Graduate who loves to travel. He works and lives in South East Asia, and is keen to promote the aquatic world, and the people who depend upon it.



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