The Irrawaddy Dolphin is a critically endangered species that inhabits murky waters of rivers and estuaries in Southeast and South Asia. This dolphin species is characterized by having a blunt forehead and nose, in contrast to the pointed nose of many oceanic species of dolphin. Its coloration is grey overall with no distinctive markings except for a slightly lighter belly. The dolphin surfaces in a rolling fashion and often lifts its flukes (tail fins) clear of the water for a deep dive. It is the only dolphin known to spit a stream of water for a deep dive and to spit fish and sometimes spit for social interactions. The life span of Irrawaddy dolphin is estimated to be 30 to 50 years. The species generally occurs in small groups of 2-7 individuals, but sometimes may travel in groups as large as 14. Similar to bats and other dolphins, the Irrawaddy dolphin uses echolocation to find fish, navigate and interact with each other. Irrawaddy dolphins feed on fish, shrimp and probably other crustaceans.
Records of the Irrawaddy dolphin in the Ayeyawady River date back to an ancient Chinese text from AD 800 when they referred to as “river pigs”. Although the original range of the Irrawaddy dolphin reached from India and Bangledesh in the northwest down through Southeast Asia to Indonesia and possibly even as far east and south as Papua New Guinea, this endangered aquatic mammal is now found in only three rivers in the world: the Ayeyawady in Myamar; the Mekong in Cambodia and Lao PDR; and the Mahakham in Indonesia. The first scientific survey of dolphins in Myanmar was conducted in 2002, which found them to be found in a 400 km stretch of river between Bhamo and Mingun. There is now roughly a minimum of 60 dolphins left in the Ayeyawady River, in addition to approximately 80-100 individuals left in each of the Mekong and Mahakham Rivers.
In Myanmar, this amazingly cleaver and intelligent species has learned to fish in a mutually beneficial way together with cast net fishermen, termed “cooperative fishing”—a phenomenon found nowhere else in the world. Through an elaborate communication system of calls and signals made by both dolphins and fishermen, the dolphins rear schools of fish towards the cast net fishing boats, signaling to the fishermen to throw their nets when the fish near close to the boat. This practice has been documented to yield a greater catch for the fishermen. This tradition is part of Myanmar’s rich natural and cultural heritage and is one of the best examples of a symbiotic relationship between man and nature.
A moment of the cooperative fishing between Myanmar fishermen and Irrawaddy dolphins. Photo (c) WCS.
In December 2005, the Ayeyawady Dolphin Protected Area (ADPA) was established as the first national aquatic protected area in Myanmar by the Department of Fisheries, with support from WCS, to protect this critically endangered species and a biologically unique human-dolphin cooperative fishery. The ADPA stretches 74 km of river starting from Mingun in the south up to Kyaukmyaung and Singu townships in the north. The protected area was established to reduce threats to dolphins, which include electric fishing, gill nets, pollution, sedimentation of key habitat and breeding areas, and boat traffic. WCS continues to support the Department of Fisheries to manage this area and protect dolphins through monthly patrols and enforcement against illegal fishing techniques; educational outreach activities; research on dolphin behavior and fisheries; monitoring the status of the dolphins and threats to their conservation; and developing alternative livelihoods and economic incentives for conservation such as ecotourism.
Ecotourism is a vital component of protected area management because it gives value to the dolphins as “living resource.” In 2015, the ADPA was selected as one of Myanmar’s official strategic ecotourism pilot sites as part of the Myanmar Ecotourism Policy and Management Strategy. Community-based ecotourism in the ADPA is currently being developed to create a link between tourism and conservation and to provide visitors with a quality educational experience focusing on the uniqueness of the human-dolphin cooperative fishing phenomenon, local culture, and other natural attractions including observing migratory water birds.
Read more about the Irrawaddy River ecosystem.