The disappearance of critically endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins along a stretch of the Mekong River in southern Laos has dealt a blow to the local tourism industry, putting hotels, restaurants and tour guides out of business, said villagers living near the border with Cambodia.
The population of the dolphins, which have a high rounded forehead and no beak, living in the area had dwindled to just four in 2020, the regional conservation agency said, and two died last year. The last one died in February after it was caught in a gill net and swept away to Cambodian territory.
“Taking Lao and foreign tourists to see the dolphins used to be a big business,” said a villager who owned and operated a hotel and a restaurant in the district, and who like others interviewed requested anonymity for safety reasons.
“Now, there are no more dolphins, no more business,” he said. “My family and my employees suffer from the lack of income. My hotel was [their] only source of income.”
The Irrawaddy dolphin is considered a sacred animal by both Laotians and Cambodians and had been an important source of income and jobs for communities involved in dolphin-watching ecotourism.
Irrawaddy dolphins are still found in other areas of Southeast Asia, although they are considered to be endangered species.
Populations of the aquatic mammal, also known as the Mekong River dolphin, survive downriver in Cambodia, in the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, and in the Mahakam River in Indonesian Borneo, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Less than 100 are believed to exist.
Thousands of tourists from Asia and Europe came to the area to see the dolphins, said an official from the provincial Information, Culture and Tourism Department.
“Now, some of them come here just to see the waterfall,” he told RFA.
“The impact of the [disappearance] is enormous,” a tour guide, who used to take visitors to watch the Irrawaddy dolphins swim in the Mekong. “There are no more tourists coming to see the dolphins.”
One villager told RFA in April that the construction of the massive Don Sahong Dam was to blame.
Before the dam was built, dolphins would swim in waters in both Laos and Cambodia. But following construction, the structure created strong water currents in Laos, forcing the dolphins to migrate to calmer, circulating Cambodian waters, he said.
An official from the provincial Agriculture and Forestry Department told RFA that his department would request a new pair of Irrawaddy dolphins from Cambodia for a breeding program in the protected pool in Laos.
But the plan has not yet been carried out due to a meeting postponement.