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November 19, 2019

Conservation of the Ayeyawady Dolphins

Villagers carry an Ayeyawady Dolphin, found dead in the Ayeyawady River.  Photo: WCF
Villagers carry an Ayeyawady Dolphin, found dead in the Ayeyawady River.  Photo: WCF

By Ko Ba (Kathar)

There are 31 species of dolphins found in the world; 27 are oceanic, and 5 are river dolphins. Those who inhabit the ocean dwell in saltwater but those living in rivers, are adapted to freshwater. These numbers are continuously changing because of new discoveries, taxonomic reclassification, and genetic studies. All dolphins belong to the cetacean infraorder which also includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Among them, the Ayeyawady dolphin is one of the species which inhabit in the rivers in Myanmar.

The Ayeyawady Dolphin as well as River Pig
Records of the Ayeyawady dolphin in the Ayeyawady River date back to an ancient Chinese text from AD 800 when they referred to as “river pigs”. The Ayeyawady dolphin is now found in only three rivers in the world: the Ayeyawady in Myamar; the Mekong in Cambodia and Lao PDR; and the Mahakham in Indonesia.
The first scientific survey of dolphins in Myanmar was conducted in 2002, which found them in a 400 km stretch of river between Bhamo and Mingun. There is now roughly a minimum of 60 dolphins left in the Ayeyawady River, in addition to approximately 80-100 individuals left in each of the Mekong and Mahakham Rivers.
An English naturalist, John Anderson had been to Myanmar and made a research exploration along the Ayeyawady River from 1871 to 1879. During his research trip, he discovered the round-snouted ash grey dolphin in the Ayeyawady River and he became the first person who ever had discovered such type of fresh water dolphin.
The Ayeyawady dolphin is well-known for helping local fishermen and can be found in Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand and Philippines. It can be found in the upstream of Mingun of the Ayeyawady River.

Endangered the Ayeyawady dolphin
The status of the Ayeyawady dolphin has been raised from “vulnerable” to “endangered” because its numbers have fallen by half over the past 60 years due to human activities, according to the latest Red List of threatened species produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Currently some of the Ayeyawady dolphins live in the river between Bhamo and Mandalay in Myanmar, in addition to Mekong River in Cambodia and Laos, and in Mahakham in Indonesia, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Myanmar.
The Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have launched a community-based ecotourism project in the ADPA zone, which encourages dolphin-watching tours so that humans can experience the unique human-animal interaction and hopefully contribute to the continuous rise of the local dolphin population.
The Ayeyawady Dolphin is a critically endangered species that inhabits murky waters of rivers and estuaries in Southeast and South Asia.
Even though electronic fishing is a major threat to the population of Ayeyawady dolphins locally, other causes such as pollution in the river water, allegedly caused by illegal gold mines in upstream areas, needed to be addressed as well. The Department of Fisheries has enacted the Freshwater Fisheries Law in order to prohibit from electric-shock fishing.

Dolphin Watching Tourism
The dolphins thriving in the segment between Mingun and Kyauk Myaung are famous for having the very peculiar and interesting characteristics. The dolphins in this area demonstrate the enigmatic relationship with fishermen. They are supposed to assist the fishermen in finding the clusters of fish. The strange activities of dolphins are fascinating the people, both local and foreign. The dolphin lovers usually visit the places to watch the peculiarity of dolphins, thus forging a business in tourism like Dolphin Watching Tourism.

Cooperative Fishing
A fishing boat is usually handled by two fishermen, one at the stern pedaling and steering the boat and the other throws the net into the water for catching the fish. The rower usually brings two oars, one short and another long one. The short one is used for propelling and the long one is used as punting pole for pushing the boat ahead in the very shallow part of the river where propelling by oar is impossible, by thrusting the long oar at the river bed and force the boat forward. The rower also brings a short wooden stick about one foot long with one end having about one inch in diameter and tapering to the other end.
When the fishermen, are out fishing, try first to find the dolphins by inquiring the farmers working on the nearby bank and those working on sand bars in the middle of the river. Dolphins, being the warm blooded mammals, do not live long under water and often come up to the surface to breathe in the air. So people even on the distant bank can see the location of dolphins.
When the fishermen find the place of dolphins, they row their boat and approach the dolphins as nearly as possible and beat the side of the boat by the stick they bring rhythmically. Dolphins know the vibration produced by beating and they have sharp sensor to detect the location from where the vibration comes. Commonly two to three dolphins come to the fishing boat and stay at a reasonable distance.
A dolphin supposed to be the leader of the group surges its head above the water and then sets its tail vertically above the water. The formation of this type of display indicates the signal for the fishermen to be ready to catch the fish. When the dolphin is exposing its tail horizontally above the water and slaps the surface of the water, the fishermen understand it is the signal to follow them. The fishermen then follow the dolphins which lead to the place where they can find the fish.
The strange relationship and understanding each other between the fishermen and the dolphin is quite interesting. The dolphins signal the fishermen to be ready for fishing by showing its tail straight up above the water as they see the cluster of fishes in the water below..
Once the fisherman saw the dolphin’s tail straight up above the water and swaying sideways, he throws the fishing net into the water. Dolphins never take the fishes caught in the net for food; they are just devouring fishes outside the net. It is quite amusing to see the natural rule exhibiting the sharing of food between the fishermen and dolphins. They help fishermen in finding the fish but never breach the nature’s law of sharing food.

Conservation of the
Ayeyawady dolphin
Despite high growth of population in the past, the Ayeyawady dolphin population is dwindling and only 70 dolphins were counted by the survey in 2014. Local people should have more awareness for the conservation of dolphins whereas the institutions concerned are now taking measures to prevent dolphins from extinction.
The Department of Fisheries is making concerted efforts to manage this area and protect dolphins through monthly patrols and enforcement against illegal fishing techniques; educational outreach activities; research on dolphin behavior and fisheries; monitoring the status of the dolphins and threats to their conservation; and developing alternative livelihoods and economic incentives for conservation such as ecotourism.

Translated by
Win Ko Ko Aung
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