The Last Freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphin in Cambodia Died Tangled in a Fishing Net, Officials Say

Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in Cambodia.
Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in the Mekong River in Cambodia in 2019. Xinhua / WWF-Cambodia via Getty Images

The last known Irrawaddy dolphin in northeastern Cambodia has died, wildlife officials confirmed on Wednesday. The river dolphin, which lived in the Mekong River, was tangled in a fishing net.

Also called the Mekong River dolphin, the Irrawaddy dolphin is an endangered species with an estimated 91 animals left, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. As of 2020, experts estimated around 89 surviving Irrawaddy dolphins, as reported by Los Angles Times. Aside from Mekong River, the Irrawaddy dolphin is found in the Myanmar River, the Indonesian Borneo River, and southern coastal regions of Asia.

The dolphin died Tuesday, February 15, 2022, but its tail was spotted caught in a fishing line about one week prior, Cambodian state news agency AKP reported. The dolphin’s entanglement prevented it from swimming and catching food, leading to its death.

“We are saddened to lose the last dolphin at the Cheuteal water pool adjacent to the border of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR),” the Fisheries Conservation Department of Cambodia said on Facebook, as reported by Plant Based News. “The transboundary Mekong River dolphin sub-population experienced serious pressure from anthropogenic activities, change of the Mekong water flow, and climate change, causing the total population to have gradually declined.”

According to WWF, the death of this last known Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong River could represent the species’ extinction within Laos.

“The numbers in the pool have plummeted over the last few years, due to multiple threats including hydropower dam construction causing disruptions to river flow and reduced fish abundance, drowning in gill-nets, and the use of damaging fishing practices such as electrofishing and overfishing,” said Lan Mercado, WWF Asia-Pacific director.

Irrawaddy dolphins have been vulnerable to hunting for years and have also been used for combat target training. Fishing nets are another huge issue for this species and other aquatic animals. As the fishing industry turns to lighter, cheaper fishing nets, the dolphins can no longer sense the nets via echolocation. 

Dam and hydropower construction have also threatened the endangered river dolphin species. Now, wildlife experts warn that more protection is needed to save the Irrawaddy dolphin from global extinction.

“The remaining population of ‘Critically Endangered’ river dolphins in the Cambodia section of the Mekong is now stable, whilst still facing serious challenges,” Mercado said. “This latest river dolphin death highlights how vulnerable these and other species remain. Documenting the lessons learned from this tragic loss is critically important if we are to protect the endangered species in the region.”

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