South East Asia Diary 2011 – In Search of the Irrawaddy Dolphin

In the afternoon, as the waters began to rise, Piya noticed that she was see less and less of the dolphins. This was confirmed by a glance at her data sheets: it seemed that the animals had begun to disperse with the turning of the tide.

Piyali Roy, a cetalogist, came to the Sunderbans to do a survey on the dolphins – the Irrawaddy and the Gangetic. According to her:

“The cetacean population has kind of disappeared from view. No one knows whether it is because they’re gone or because they haven’t been studied. There hasn’t ever been a proper survey.”

Earlier this month, as I set off with my traveler friends and followed the signs put up by the local authorities (“Dolphins this way 200 metres“), I had this dual sense of hope and hopelessness which Piyali seems to have also experienced.

The Irrawaddy Dolphins found largely in the coastal waters stretching from India to the Philippines are rated VU to CR as per the WWF scale. In wide stretch of the Mekong called the 4000 Islands (Si Phon Don) where Laos and Cambodia have their borders, circa 2007, between 60-80 numbers were estimated.

I saw about 5-6. From Don Khone, the largest of the 4000 Islands that make up the Mekong river as it flows from Laos into Cambodia, it is 20-25 minute boat ride south right to the border.

Sighting wildlife is about patience. One needs to sit quietly in a place which offers a view into the horizon. Just sit quietly and stare. Standing on a small rocky outcrop, that’s what I and my fellow travelers did. And they were sighted. Dark forms of the dolphins could be seen swimming just under the surface of the water. A few of them did surface.

The Mekong has a lot of boat traffic – fishing, local transport (from one island to another), tourist joy rides, etc. The constant drone of long tail boats was the background music to this “show”.

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The Lonely Planet (Laos) writes that China is planning over 20 dams on the Mekong (the part that runs through the Yunnan province of China). The resultant changes in the course of the river, the quantity of water, etc is going to definitely impact the numbers. Laos is also planning to build a number of dams and is facing pressure from different sources. But like all communist governments, the state is likely to simply bulldoze its way through.

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