PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Cambodia’s endangered Irrawaddy dolphin could be saved from extinction by a plan to reduce villagers’ dependence on fishing and promote tourism near the animal’s habitat in the Mekong River, officials said Tuesday.
The plan — funded by US$100,000 (€68,185) from the government and US$600,000 (€410,110) from the World Tourism Organization — will introduce alternative means of livelihood to villages along the river in two northeastern provinces, Tourism Minister Thong Khon said.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, an estimated 80 to 110 dolphins remain in Cambodia’s stretch of the Mekong River, but about a dozen die each year. The WWF has classified the species as “critically endangered.”
“The main cause of dolphins’ deaths is fishing. So we want to encourage people to grow vegetables, raise fish in ponds or pilot boats to take tourists to see dolphins instead,” Thong Khon said.
While many of the dolphins have died from being trapped in villagers’ fishing nets, fishing is also depleting their food supply, he said.
The conservation plan, called the Mekong River Discovery Trail Project, will promote poverty alleviation through tourism development, the WTO said in a statement.
Thong Khon said dolphin conservation and tourism development are closely linked to improved living conditions for people. “No dolphins means no tourism. No tourism means no development,” he said.
The plan is supposed to draw visitors to view the dolphin, which lives in 10 natural deep-water pools in a 190-kilometer (120-mile) stretch of the Mekong River, mostly between the capitals of Kratie and Stung Treng provinces, the WTO said.
The project will begin community-based tourism and training for villagers this month, it said.
Harsh Varma, director of the WTO’s Development Assistance Department, described the project as “sustainable pro-poor tourism.” The organization said about 30 percent of households in Kratie and 50 percent in Stung Treng live on less than US$1 (€0.68) a day.