Only 85 of These Rare Dolphins Exist—So Why Is Laos Doing Something That Could Kill Them All?
Only around 85 Irrawaddy dolphins, an unusual-looking cetacean with a blunt-shaped head, remain in the Mekong Delta, despite international efforts to save the critically endangered species. Now a plan by government officials in Laos to construct a dam on the river threatens to wipe out these dolphins altogether, conservationists say.
Time reported Monday that the small nation wants to construct a 260-megawatt dam across one of the main channels of the river delta in southern Laos, near the 115-mile stretch of habitat in which Irrawaddy dolphins are now protected.
Irrawaddy dolphins, one of the few species that can live in fresh or salt water, are found in coastal areas stretching from India to Indonesia, mostly in river pools, estuaries, and lagoons. They rarely venture more than a few miles offshore and have been spotted more than 760 miles upstream.
Considered sacred by the Khmer and the Lao, the dolphins were listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2008. Five freshwater populations, including the Mekong dolphins, were classified as Critically Endangered.
Human activity has contributed greatly to the species’ decline: The dolphins are often killed in fishing gill nets, and they suffer from habitat destruction due to construction projects like the dam. The Mekong, home to more than 1,200 species of fish, teems with life; 80 to 90 percent of the fish pass through the same channel that Laos wants to dam up, which could devastate prey stocks for the dolphins.
“Plans to construct the Don Sahong Dam in a channel immediately upstream from these dolphins will likely hasten their disappearance from the Mekong,” World Wildlife Federation–Cambodia Country Director Chhith Sam Ath told reporters late last month.