If there’s one creature that’s exempted from a Lao diet famous for consuming everything that hops, flies, swims or crawls, it’s the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, which has been known to make its way upstream from Cambodia to frolic in the waters of Si Phan Don. Bluish-grey and up to 2.5m long, the freshwater dolphins are looked upon by islanders as reincarnated humans with a human spirit – an idea that‘s been etched into local lore by folk songs and stories of dolphins rescuing people from the jaws of crocodiles. But sadly, the dolphins themselves may soon be no more than legend.
Over the past one hundred years their population in the Mekong has dwindled from thousands to little more than sixty, and as few as ten now inhabit the area near Don Khon. Gill-net fishing and, across the border in Cambodia, the use of poison, electricity and explosives have caused dolphin numbers to plummet. In the past, fishermen were reluctant to cut costly nets to free entangled dolphins, causing them to drown, but this no longer happens, as Lao villagers are now compensated for their nets – part of an initiative begun by the Lao Community Fisheries and Dolphin Protection Project.
However, with the Lao government looking to dam more Mekong tributaries, (which could permanently alter the dolphins’ fragile habitat) plus the continued use of harmful pesticides in farming, conservationists are warning that the outlook for the species remains extremely bleak.