A current exhibition at the French Institute of Cambodia (IFC) in Phnom Penh displays striking images of Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris).

The photographs transcend mere aesthetics and carry a poignant message of conservation and the urgent need to safeguard one of Southeast Asia’s most beloved yet endangered species.

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Dith Tina spoke about the significance of these creatures during the October 18 opening of the Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphin Photo Exhibition.

“We are very proud that Cambodia still has Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins, while in other countries they are sadly extinct,” he stated.

In a reflective tone, he expressed a degree of regret for not witnessing these mammals during his younger years. He explained how his generation’s perception of these creatures was profoundly influenced by age-old legends.

“We learned about dolphins through stories, where they were likened to women wearing water bowls on their heads,” recalled Tina.

“Contrary to mistaken belief, dolphins aren’t fish. They’re mammals, and this very nature makes their conservation a challenging task. Like humans, they have lungs, which means they need to surface to breathe,” he added, clarifying a common misconception.

Delving into dolphin behaviour and habitat, the minister highlighted that they thrive in specific habitats, yet changes in water levels can occasionally cause them to stray.

“When water levels rose, one of them wandered off to the K’am Samnar area,” he said, citing a recent case when the dolphin strayed as far as Kandal province.

He recounted that prompt action was taken to ensure the dolphin’s safe return.

Despite the challenges faced in protecting this species, the minister’s message resonated with hope, especially for younger generations. He accentuated the significance of dolphins in local folklore and their crucial role in the ecosystem.

The freshwater dolphin is no ordinary aquatic species. Currently classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), this sub-species once freely roamed the Mekong River, from the Lao-Cambodian border to the delta in Vietnam and even in the Tonle Sap.

‘National Living Treasures’

A 2020 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Cambodia census revealed a disheartening estimate of approximately 89 adult individuals.

These dolphins primarily inhabit eight deep-water locations during the dry season, from January to May, along a 180km stretch of the Mekong in Cambodia, north of Kratie to the Lao border.

Cambodian beliefs extend deep reverence to dolphins, regarding them as “National Living Treasures”.

It is said that where dolphins thrive, fish flourish, symbolising the health and prosperity of the Mekong. Beyond its shores, the river’s biodiversity sustains agriculture and fisheries, supporting millions for their food and economic well-being.

However, the journey to protect this species has encountered numerous hurdles. Incidents of dolphins becoming ensnared in fishing nets and habitat disruptions have posed threats to their already dwindling numbers.

Tina drew attention to the tragic loss of two dolphins due to large nets, underscoring the vital importance of adopting sustainable fishing practices.

He also expressed concerns about the repercussions of illegal fishing on both the dolphins and the local economy.

He urges fishermen to avoid using large nets, especially within designated no-fishing zones, reinforcing the potentially devastating consequences even if there is no intent to harm the dolphins.

Spotlighting conservation efforts, he revealed the presence of a dedicated force of 70 river guards, who work in shifts, even in areas with strong currents, with the primary mission being to detect and remove nets that threaten dolphin habitats.

A hopeful vision

Tina signalled a silver lining, acknowledging conservation efforts that resulted in the birth of seven dolphin calves in the past year.

WWF country director Seng Teak echoed these sentiments, making clear the rarity and endangered status of the Irrawaddy dolphins. Teak cited an estimated current population of approximately 90 individuals and addressed the tragic record of 11 dolphin deaths in 2022.

At the beginning of 2023, the government, with a particular focus from the agriculture ministry, implemented stringent round-the-clock measures to combat illegal fishing gear.

Educational initiatives have also been launched to prioritise the significance of these dolphins.

In addition to dolphins, the Mekong River is home to numerous exceptional species, including freshwater stingrays, the Asian giant softshell turtle, the Mekong giant catfish and giant barbs.

Notably, local freshwater stingrays have secured their place in the Guinness World Records for their immense size.

Teak commended the unwavering efforts of the ministry as well as other stakeholders in conserving these species. The Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphin Photo Exhibition, co-organised by WWF Cambodia and IFC with support from various ministries, serves as a testament to the collective commitment of the country.

The exhibition’s goal is to foster a deeper understanding of the significance of these creatures and the challenges they face. It goes beyond viewing photos – it is about immersion in the story they convey and the call to action they inspire.

Tina reinforced the importance of fishermen in prioritising sustainable harvesting and the conservation of rare species.

Celebrities like Meas Soksophea are amplifying the conservation message. The pop singer, through her music video “Dolphin in My Heart”, serves as a beacon of hope.

She had the privilege of witnessing these fascinating creatures while filming the video and urges people to actively engage in conservation efforts and seize the opportunity to view them at least once in their lifetime.

Voeut Savit, a student at the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA), said the exhibition is an enlightening experience, with the depth of information and passion for conserving these animals set to leave a lasting impression on visitors.

Looking ahead, there is hope. Tina envisions a future, a decade down the line, where the Irrawaddy dolphin is removed from the critically endangered species list.

The Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphin Photo Exhibition will remain on display at the IFC until November 17.