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Isabel Beasley talks about studying dolphins, and her favorite books.

The threat to the Mekong Irrawaddy River dolphin...

READERSVOICE.COM: There are only around 100 Irrawaddy River dolphins in the Mekong River.
What caused the population to drop over the years?
ISABEL BEASLEY: During the 1960s a fishing lot owner in the large lake in Cambodia…didn’t like dolphins near his lot eating the fish, so he ordered his staff to kill as many as they could over a month period.
We actually talked to one of these men during our surveys and he said that they would catch up to 50 a day.
Then the war really continued the killings.
During the Khmer Rouge period (1975-79), it has been reported, many dolphins were killed by the Khmer Rouge for petrol for boats and motor bikes.
After the war, the soldiers, reportedly, used the dolphins for target practice.
This seemed to occur throughout the river and we have reports in some areas where people would see whole groups of dolphins floating dead downstream.
Now the two big problems are accidental entanglement in gillnet fishing gear, and eco-tourism.
Tourism is now increasing in Cambodia with many people wanting to see the dolphins.
However, the local boat drivers do not adhere to guidelines, use their engines around the dolphins, and there are too many boats at one time.
This is becoming a huge problem for the dolphins.
RV: What has to be done to save them from extinction in the Mekong River?
What measures should be implemented, or would you implement, in an ideal world?
IB: Last year there were 18 dolphins that died from various causes (half of these calves).
This is a very high mortality rate for such a small population but they obviously are able to breed very well.
I think there is still a good chance that the population can be saved but only if conservation efforts are effective in the next few years.

The main measures to be implemented would be: prohibit any deliberate killing, by law;
prohibit illegal fishing (such as large mesh size gillnets, electric and dynamite fishing);
have agencies provide support to local communities adjacent to dolphin critical habitats, to manage the conservation area where boat speed and gillnet fishing is controlled;
manage the tourism more effectively (e.g. prohibit the use of engines around the dolphins) and ensure some of the benefits from dolphin-watching go back to local communities;
raise awareness amongst local communities about the importance of dolphins and conservation of fisheries and their habitat;
and continue the rural development program with CRDT to assist local communities to encourage their co-operation with conservation measures.
The dolphins still have a chance because of the following:
The dolphins live in only 190 km of river and in nine critical habitats;
local people revere dolphins and the river stretch is very sparsely populated;
calves are still being born;
political and government support is strong to assist with conservation efforts;
and I have intensively researched this population for four years, which has resulted in development of a comprehensive conservation and management strategy on the ways forward for conservation.
If it is not possible to conserve this population, then I would doubt that any river dolphin population has a chance in Asia.
RV: What is the attitude of the locals on the Mekong River to the Irrawaddy River dolphin?
IB: Local Khmer people have very positive attitudes towards the dolphins and revere them.
There is a local folklore that the dolphin is a reincarnated woman.

However, there are some Muslim communities that still hunt and kill dolphins when the dolphins travel below Kratie.
Problems do, however, begin when government regulations are brought in demanding local communities stop fishing in areas because of the dolphins.

Fishing is the only way many local people can feed their families and they would rather have to kill a dolphin, to get them out of the area, than see their children starve.
Also, additional problems occur when some villagers take out tourists to see dolphins (getting a month’s wage for a single boat load of tourists) but other villagers are not allowed.
Again, this is unfair and the villagers that are not allowed to take out tourists have no incentive to conserve the dolphins.
All of these factors could be managed properly but it is a continual uphill battle with politics and money issues in a developing country
RV: The Irrawaddy River dolphins are also in places like Hinchinbrook Island in North Queensland. Does the population stretch from there to places the Bay of Bengal or is only in a few areas along the way?
IB: Irrawaddy dolphins are also found along northern Australia and PNG (Papua New Guinea – ed.)
However, thanks to my ‘OE’ measuring dolphin skulls, the efforts of Peter Arnold from the Tropical Museum of Queensland, and genetic research with a colleague, Kelly Robertson, in America, the Australian population of Irrawaddy dolphins are soon to be classified as a separate species to the Asian stock.
This makes conservation efforts in Australia and Asia more urgent.
Throughout their coastal distribution, the Irrawaddy dolphin is restricted to habitats that have significant freshwater inputs – therefore they are found in very small and localised areas.
RV: What are some of your plans?
IB: I hope to finish my PhD by the end of this year.
After that I would like to continue research and conservation work on the Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin population.
I am also very interested to help local scientists in other developing nations to begin research and conservation projects on river dolphins in their area.