Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday ordered the creation of endangered dolphin protection zones on the Mekong, after three of these mammals were killed by fishing lines and nets in December.

Listed as endangered species, the Irrawaddy dolphins, known for their domed foreheads and short snouts, once swam through much of this river.

But, in recent decades, their domain has been limited to a stretch of 190 km between the northeast of the Cambodian province of Kratie and the Laos border.

Their population has been in constant decline since their first census in 1997, when 200 were counted against 90 currently.

A decline attributed to the loss of their habitat and destructive fishing practices.

Three of these breeding-age animals died in a week last month, alarming conservationists, who have called for day and night patrols to protect the dolphins from illegal fishing.

Important for local tourism

During a ceremony in Kratie, Hun Sen ordered authorities to install buoys around designated protection zones, in which there will be an "absolute ban" on fishing.

"The Mekong, home to dolphins and nearly extinct fish species, needs to be well managed so that dolphins don't die entangled in gillnets," he said, referring to those nets set by fishermen on some parts of the river to catch fish.

"The areas reserved for dolphins must be completely protected," he added, adding that the presence of these mammals contributes to local tourism.

Eleven of them died in 2022, bringing the total number of dolphins that have died in the past three years to 29, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The largest population of dolphins in the Irrawaddy

In a statement, WWF called on all relevant authorities to “promulgate and deploy appropriate measures to urgently address the mortality” caused by gillnets and electrofishing used in dolphin conservation areas.

Cambodia is home to the largest population of Irrawaddy dolphins, which are also found in rivers and lakes in Burma, Indonesia, India and Thailand.


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