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Death of last dolphin in Laos highlights Mekong's parlous state

Critically endangered aquatic mammal reportedly died after being caught in fishing net
Death of last dolphin in Laos highlights Mekong's parlous state

The Irrawaddy dolphin is under threat. (Photo: Whale Scientists)

Published: February 22, 2022 04:50 AM GMT
Updated: February 22, 2022 05:37 AM GMT

The death last week of the last known freshwater dolphin in a stretch of the Mekong in southern Laos has raised concerns among environmentalists about the increasingly parlous state of Southeast Asia’s largest river.

The critically endangered dolphin, an aquatic mammal known as both the Irrawaddy and Mekong River dolphin because it inhabits both rivers, reportedly died after being caught in a fishing net.

Its demise “most likely represents a national-level extinction of this freshwater dolphin species in Laos,” the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) noted in a statement.

The dolphin, which was a 25-year-old male that measured 2.6 meters in length and 110 kilograms in weight, was seen struggling in a net before its remains washed up on a shore days later.

“The one that just died was the last freshwater dolphin in this area,” a resident of a riverside village in Laos was quoted as saying.

“There will be no more dolphins in Laos because they have run out of food and the ecosystem has been destroyed.” 

Documenting the lessons learned from this tragic loss is critically important if we are to protect the endangered species in the region

There were three known specimens of the freshwater mammals in the waters of southern Laos last year, but two died that year.

Villagers blamed fishing practices for their demise. "When they didn’t have food, they would wander into other territory where people fish or even use explosives to catch fish,” one said.

The animals cling on to life in the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and downriver in the Mekong in Cambodia, where their population remains relatively stable with 89 of the mammals counted in 2020, according to environmentalists.

However, even in Cambodian waters they continued to face “serious pressure from human activities, the change of the Mekong water flow and climate change, causing the total population to gradually decline,” Cambodia’s Fisheries Conservation Department said in a statement.

The death of the dolphin in Laos “highlights how vulnerable these and other species remain,” stressed Lan Mercado, Asia-Pacific director of WWF.

In recent years the ecosystems of the Mekong, which stretches from China all the way to southern Vietnam, have been severely stressed by a series of hydroelectric dams built in China and Laos, conservationists say.

In addition, fishing practices such as the use of gill-nets and explosives pose additional threats to critically endangered aquatic species, including the dolphins and the giant Mekong catfish.

"Documenting the lessons learned from this tragic loss [of the dolphin in Laos] is critically important if we are to protect the endangered species in the region,” Mercado said.

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