Myanmar’s largest body of water, the Irrawaddy River, is home to one of the last populations of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. Found in only two other rivers in the world, the Mekong and the Mahakam, the Irrawaddy dolphin has sadly seen a steep decline in numbers over the past few decades. Faced with increased threats from humans, which include electric fishing, increased water pollution and a rise in regional boat traffic, the plight of the Irrawaddy dolphin has become high on the radars of conservationist organisations throughout Asia.
Here, in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, it is not only conservationist organisations who are exceedingly concerned with the future of this freshwater mammal, but also the local fishermen who have, for many years, drifted through these waters developing what one would describe as something of an inimitable relationship with the Irrawaddy dolphin.
Co-operative fishing is what they call it, a distinctive phenomenon found nowhere else in Asia. The dolphins fish together with the local fishermen, observing their calls and rounding up schools of fish into their nets. This phenomenon began many years ago before the implementation of destructive fishing methods in the region. In 1984 village leader Moung Li began fishing with the Irrawaddy dolphins,
”When I first became a fisherman there were many dolphins in our region. The dolphins would learn to hear our calls and come to us in packs. They would work with us to fish. We would get our share and they would get theirs. We still work with them today but now there aren’t many dolphins left”
There are now only 65 – 70 dolphins left in this part of the Irrawaddy River. In order to combat their endangerment The Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area (ADPA) was established in 2005 by the Department of Fisheries, with support by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Collaborative projects were set up in the region to regularly monitor and patrol the ADPA, as well as protect the area from any ongoing threats to the last remaining population of Irrawaddy dolphin. One of those projects would see the inclusion of local fishing communities who would take part in what is now known as the Irrawaddy community-based eco-tourism (CBET) project, an initiative that sees local fishing villages and tourists becoming educated about the importance of conservation both here on the Irrawaddy River and throughout the world.
With the help of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism six villages in the region were put onto the CBET project and have benefited immensely. Taking in tourists and sharing with them the traditional Burmese culture, they educate and demonstrate to visitors the importance of the relationships between local fishermen and the Irrawaddy dolphin. The money gained from the tourist visits goes towards the community and provides an alternative form of income, one that sees the practice of unethical fishing redundant. Waste management has also been set up in all six villages and significantly helped to prevent any trash entering the river, while also educating the locals about waste management in general, a practice unknown to them before the arrival of the CBET project.
The project currently arranges one to three day tours on the Irrawaddy River, which includes lunch and dinner in a local village and accommodation on a riverboat. It is looking to open its first bed and breakfast at one of the local villages in September 2016, which will provide another source of income to the participating communities.
Community based tourism here in the Irrawaddy River has been able to create a link between tourism and conservation. It has provided a new hope for the dolphins that reside here, as well as the communities and local fishermen that have been working with these dolphins for many years. Through increased awareness and collaboration the future of the Irrawaddy dolphin may just be saved.
If you would like to book a tour to visit the Irrawaddy dolphins and local fishing villages please email thantzin1977