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Myanmar expands protected area for rare Irrawaddy dolphin

  • The Myanmar government has expanded the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area, initially spanning 74 kilometers (46 miles) of the Irrawaddy River, to include a 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch of the river.
  • Use of gillnets is restricted within the new protected area, and damaging activities such as electric or dynamite fishing and gold mining are strictly prohibited.
  • An additional 100-kilometer stretch has been designated as a buffer zone, with milder restrictions.
  • A survey this year put the number of critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the Irrawaddy River at 78.

The Myanmar government has expanded a protected stretch of the Irrawaddy River as part of efforts to save the critically endangered dolphin species of the same name.

The Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area, established in 2005 with an initial span of 74 kilometers (46 miles) of the river, has now been extended with a new 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch running from the towns of Male to Shwegu, the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced in a press release. The new stretch of protected area was based on consultations between Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries and WCS, and over 50 villages along the river, WCS said.

The new protected area has several restrictions in place. Since entanglement in gillnets — long nets hung vertically to catch fish — is a common threat to the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), the government has restricted the use and size of gillnets within the protected area. Destructive modes of fishing, such as electric fishing, in which fishermen try to shock or kill fish by submerging long metal prods and running a current, sometimes electrocuting dolphins in the process, is strictly prohibited, as is dynamite fishing. Other activities that damage dolphin habitat, such as gold mining or dredging, along the 100-kilometer stretch are also banned. An additional 100-kilometer stretch with milder restrictions has been designated as a buffer area, WCS said.

“Establishment of the new Ayeyawady Dolphin Protected Area demonstrates the significant commitment of the Myanmar Government to conserve this charismatic species of the Ayeyawady River,” Saw Htun, WCS’s deputy country program director for Myanmar, said in the statement, referring to the Irrawaddy by its official name. “WCS will collaborate with all stakeholders on coordinated efforts to save the threatened Irrawaddy dolphins in existing and new protected areas.”

Part of the river range of the Irrawaddy dolphin in Myanmar. Image by WCS.

Irrawaddy dolphins, usually found in brackish, coastal waters across South and Southeast Asia, have decreased in number across much of their range. The species is currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. But five subpopulations, including in the Irrawaddy, are listed as critically endangered.

Three rivers in the world support freshwater populations of the Irrawaddy dolphin, and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar is one of them. The dolphins in this river are noted for cooperatively fishing with the traditional fishermen: the dolphins voluntarily herd fish into the fishermen’s nets, and feast on fish that the fishermen throw back to them or that fall out of the nets.

The number of dolphins in the river has remained low over the past few years. However, there hasn’t been a major decline in the recent past, according to WCS Myanmar, with estimates between 2010 and 2017 ranging from 60 to 70 individuals. The latest survey in 2018 counted 78 dolphins in the Irrawaddy River.

Irrawaddy dolphins in Myanmar are known to cooperate with fishermen by driving fish into their nets. Image courtesy of WCS.
Dolphins in the Irrawaddy River. Image courtesy of WCS.