One of Irrawaddy dolphins ever spotted in Songkhla Lake (File photo). Credit: DCMR

Racing to save Thailand’s sole freshwater population of Irrawaddy dolphins

The latest survey has revealed that Thailand has only 14-20 freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins left, and concerned agencies are racing to save the species by proposing listing it as a preserved species

The National Policy and Plan Committee on Marine and Coastal Resources Management chaired by Deputy PM Gen Prawit Wongsuwan during its first meeting this year has approved in principle the proposal to list Irrawaddy Dolphin as the country’s new preserved species.

Dr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, one of the committee members who proposed the listing has revealed the committee’s resolution, saying this has officially kick-started the documental preparation process although it could be a long way to go before seeing the species on the list, around one or two years from now on.

The committee has to work alongside the National Committee on Wildlife Conservation and Protection to make this happen, he told Bangkok Tribune. The listing could mean better protection and conservation of the species as well as better management of its habitats and threatening human activities such as illegal fishery, uncontrolled tourism, and others, Dr. Thon said.

Under the new Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act B.E. 2562, poaching, possessing, importing and exporting, as well as trading preserved animals or their carcasses are prohibited and those violating the law could face a jail term from three to 15 years or a fine of Bt 300,000-1.5 million.

So far, 19 species have been listed as preserved species, five of which are aquatic or marine animals_be they Dugong, Bryde’s Whale, Omura’s Whale, Whale Shark, and Leatherback Turtle.

“If it’s listed as our new preserved species, that could mean better protection not only for the animal in Songkhla Lake but also other pods in other marine habitats. That could also mean habitat protection, more sustainable fishery and tourism, more stringent regulation against threats, and so on,” said Dr. Thon.

ID#35, the last Irrawaddy dolphin in the transboundary pool comes up for a breath. Cetacean surveyors could distinguish him from the unique shape of his dorsal fin. Credit: Mongabay/ Cambodia Department of Fisheries Conservation

The plight

The plight of the Irrawaddy Dolphin was in the spotlight again early this year following the death of the last animal in the transboundary water of the Mekong River between Laos and Cambodia.

Irrawaddy river dolphins since have caught public attention, and in Thailand the focus is on the pod in the freshwater habitat of Songkhla Lake, which is said to have been on a sharp decline since 2006. There are other pods of the species reported in marine habitats here, ranging from the southernmost Andaman provinces of Satun, Trung, and Krabi, Donsak and Khanom districts in Surat Thani, and the East of Thailand. Dr. Thon has estimated that there are around 300 animals in these waters.

Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa has received a report from concerned agencies, which reveals that since 2006, the population of the animal in Songkhla Lake has sharply declined from 94 to around 14 to 20 this year. In 2018, there was a state attempt to declare the lake as the animal’s protection zone, but still, they were found stranded aground largely due to entanglement in fishing nets.

Aside from three rivers in South and Southeast Asia: the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, the Mahakam in Kalimantan, Indonesia, and the Mekong in Cambodia, there are only other two lakes which have these dolphins inhabiting; Chiliga Lake in India, and Songkhla Lake of Thailand.

The freshwater population in Sonkhla Lake is the most worrisome as there is only 14 to 20 left, while 140 animals are still reported in India, 90 in Indonesia, 90 in Cambodia, and 80 in Myanmar, according to the Environment Ministry.

In 2003, Thailand had successfully proposed the listing of the animal in CITES Appendix I, meaning full protection is provided with all forms of trade banned except for research purposes. IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature) also lists it under its Red List as “Vulnerable”, while the population in the main freshwater ecosystems are classified as “Critically Endangered”.

The global wildlife assessment organization said this distinctive dolphin with a rounded head and no beak is patchily distributed in shallow, coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific, and also occurs in the three large river ecosystems. The main threat to the animal is entanglement in fishing nets, especially gill nets, while habitat loss and degradation from pollution, dam construction, sedimentation, and vessel traffic are additional concerns.

The animal is legally protected from deliberate capture in most of its range, and specially protected areas have been designated in several areas. Five subpopulations, including all three freshwater populations, however, still have suffered dramatic declines in range and numbers and are considered “Critically Endangered”, according to IUCN.

“Restrictions on the use of gillnets are necessary to reduce entanglement mortality. The use of non-entangling and more selective gear is to be encouraged,” IUCN recommended.

The dolphins swim in Songkhla Lake (File photo). Credit: DCMR

Racing to save the dolphin

The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources noted that up to 60% of the pod in Songkhla Lake died of entanglement in fishing nets. The department expected that if the entanglement mortality is reduced to zero, the population there could grow back to more than 30 animals in ten years.

Sophon Thongdee, the department’s Director General, said the department has come up with both short and long-term plans to save the dolphin, covering the next two to five years.

The department will try to reduce threats to the animal and its habitat. It will also try to extend the protection zone while promoting dolphin conservation among the public. In the long run, more research on the animal will be supported to help boost its population and more effective conservation of its habitat. There will be more synergy work among concerned agencies including the National Parks Department, the Fishery Department, and several others in managing and protecting the animal and its habitat, Mr. Sophon said.

Among the immediate work is requesting the Fishery Department to suspend its release of giant catfishes in the lake, the factor believed to encourage more intensive fishing activities there.

Mr. Varawut remarked that due to a sharp decline of the population of the dolphin in the lake, it’s necessary to boost surveillance against illegal activities that could pose threats to the animal there. Smart patrolling will be deployed to protect the animal and boost law enforcement against the activities, he said.

“We may fish to make a living, but this can pose a great risk to the animal. Some are outsiders who lack an understanding of the animal. We need to finetune our understanding about it and I believe that if people understand the situation and its value, they will love and want to help protect it,” said Mr. Varawut.

Also read: Death of last river dolphin in Laos rings alarm bells for Mekong population

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