Back Society » Environment » Preserving Cambodia's Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins: Community-Based Ecotourism and Nature-Based Solutions in the Mekong Flooded Forest Landscape

At dawn, the blunt foreheads of Irrawaddy dolphins breach the calm surface of the Mekong River the way an epiphany enters one’s mind; unexpected, graceful and profoundly welcome.

Photo by Gerry Ryan.

The sight of these majestic mammals epitomizes the unique environment found in a 27,000-square-meter area in northeast Cambodia known as the Mekong Flooded Forest (MFF). The spectacular freshwater ecosystem includes wetlands, rocky and sandy riverine habitats and deep pools.

Considered a national living treasure, the Irrawaddy dolphins draw visitors from around the world, providing an important source of tourism in a generally low-income and overlooked region. The endangered dolphin’s presence serves as a measure of the ecosystem's overall health as well. Along with giant freshwater stingray, giant barb, Mekong giant catfish, giant softshell turtle and other endangered species including hog deer, Eld’s deer, white-shouldered ibis, river tern and vultures, the dolphins are an integral element of community-based ecotourism (CBET) efforts that can help ensure the entire Mekong region enjoys a prosperous future.

Photo by Pha Nem.

The Environmental, Economic, and Social Significance of the Mekong Flooded Forest

The MFF’s stunning network of seasonally-submerged forests, rapids-beset riverbeds and floodplains support diverse plant and animal populations. 411 species of inland fish, 37 species of mammals, 281 species of birds, 52 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 674 species of vascular plants live in the 180 kilometer stretch of the Mekong River in addition to 65,000 people in 61 villages. These human communities have developed rich cultures and traditions dependent on the ecosystem.

Photo by Pha Nem.

MFF residents rely on the abundant waters for fisheries and the surrounding areas for agriculture. Thriving fish populations support ecosystems beyond the MFF as well. Most profoundly, the MFF contributes water, nutrients and migration routes to the Tonle Sap Lake, the world’s most productive inland fishery which is of immense importance to Cambodia’s overall economy and local livelihoods, providing 60% of all Cambodia's protein intake. Marc Goichot, WWF’s Asia Pacific Freshwater Lead, explains: “Mekong floods are the main engine for the Tonle Sap Lake biological cycle that most species depend on. The exceptional productivity of the Tonle Sap Lake is very much correlated to the flood pulse and nutrient availability. Many fish species migrate between the Mekong and Tonle Sap. In fact, it may be the largest fish migration route on the planet.”

Photo by Nicholas Axelrod-Ruom.

Meanwhile, the greater Mekong ecosystem that impacts all of Southeast Asia benefits from the MFF’s role in groundwater formation, flood cycle regulation, natural pollution filtering, oxidation of surplus nutrients, erosion protection, and sediment retention. For example, some of the rich soil carried by the Mekong River through Vietnam can be traced back to the MFF.

The Mekong Flooded Forest at Risk

The threats to the MFF are nearly as diverse as the wildlife dependent on it. Illegal fishing and overfishing, poaching and illegal logging, coupled with unsustainable development contribute to ecosystem degradation. The precarious balance of sustainable local lifestyles is in danger as illegal and irresponsible natural resource use increases alongside a lack of financial and educational resources.

Photo by Thomas Cristofoletti.

Compounding the threats to the MFF are the hydropower developments nearby and upriver. To meet increasing energy demands, many dams have been constructed with more proposed, bringing with them an array of environmental challenges. The impacts of the dams on water flow, particularly in conjunction with climate change, upends the delicate flood and drought cycles that have sustained humans and animals for centuries. The dam’s reservoirs reduce nutrients in the river system and weaken the connection between the area and Tonle Sap Lake. They also disrupt the natural spawning and migration patterns of fish and bird species, disturbing wildlife food chains and populations.

The Impact of Holistic Community and International Collaborations

No single solution will safeguard the MFF from the many threats it faces and the dedication of numerous stakeholders will be necessary. Local individuals, groups and agencies are working together with international organizations such as WWF-Cambodia to implement nature-based solutions (NbS). Specifically, Climate Resilient by Nature - Mekong Project (CRxN Mekong) aimed to improve the region’s ecologically sustainable response to climate change and environmental degradation. It nurtured CBET initiatives; improved governance and protection for vulnerable ecosystems; supported Community Fisheries Groups (CFi) for sustainable resource management and diversified incomes; strengthened policy advocacy and environmental awareness; and emphasized gender inclusion. WWF-Cambodia collaborated with Cambodia’s Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA) in Stung Treng Province and IIRR Cambodia in Kratie Province as well as local community members and leaders.

Photo by Sopheap Phim (left ) and Pha Nem (right)

WWF-Cambodia helped establish a variety of activities in pursuit of the desired outcomes. Households were provided fish fingerlings and new or repaired concrete tanks to raise them in as an alternative to illegally caught wild species. CFi offered training to female members on aquaculture product processing and labeling, marketing and competent financial management in addition to hospitality and tourist experiences. Bio-intensive gardens with 20 types of crops were established in households and at two schools to produce food and additional income sources, as well as to serve as educational resources for climate-smart agriculture techniques. The CBET involve local residents in tourism services including dolphin and birdwatching tours and facilitate the sale of indigenous crafts.

“My motivation and passion is from sustainable use of natural resources so that the next generation will have these resources,” explained Im Chak, a 63-year-old member of the Khsach Leav Community Fishery and River Guard in Kratie province. The continued support of these river guards is one of the CRxN Mekong’s most visible tasks. WWF-Cambodia helped to organize training classes for the guards to expand their knowledge of patrolling techniques and protocol, rivercraft operation, laws and enforcement to effectively safeguard natural resources. The courses were supplemented by the procurement of equipment including boats and engines, smartphones, lifejackets, power banks and headlamps.

Community fisheries patrol team. Photo by Sina Pha.

Carefully collected statistics can help explain the progress made since the CRxN Mekong project in Cambodia began in July 2022. As of the end of 2023, 2,458 individuals had been directly involved in NbS to protect and restore critical ecosystems and establish community resilience plans. 2,089 people had their vulnerability to climate change reduced via the adoption of technologies including solar panels. 370 people had been directly involved in newly established or enhanced livelihood activities such as ecotourism, fish raising and vegetable planting with 47% of targeted community members reporting a greater number of income sources for their households. 11,850 ha/km2 are now governed by or improved by management models with 72 river guards, 72 bird nest protection guards and 42 CFi helping safeguard against illegal and unsustainable activities.

Photos by Pha Nem.

What Success Looks Like for Local Lives

The CRxN program is perhaps best understood by examining specific individuals who have benefited from it. Kan Vannak, a 48-year-old father of four from Chroy Banteay Village in Kratie Province, for example, was an illegal fisherman as recently as 2020. Motivated in part by uncertain economic realities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a decline in natural resource abundance, he took part in WWF-Cambodia’s educational activities which introduced him to the benefits of ecotourism. He participated in a variety of training workshops including those focused on boat operations and hospitality skills. He stopped illegal fishing and now works as a boat driver to supplement his income from planting rice, raising chickens and growing vegetables.

Kan Vanak at his home. Photo by Pha Nem.

As Vannak’s story underscores, protecting the MFF involves providing viable economic opportunities as alternatives to unsustainable activities. Skilled traditional scarf weaver, Yin Sam Onn from Keng Village in Kratie Province, for example, received technical guidance from the CRxN project as well as opportunities to showcase her work at various local, provincial and national exhibitions and CBET. The 70-year-old’s ability to sell her products will be enhanced by the growth of tourism in the region which will bring in customers with educated interests in sustainable support of local communities.

Yin Som Onn with her scarves. Photos by Pha Nem.

Similarly, Horn Thida, a 44-year-old mother of four from Khsach Leav Village in Kratie Province participated in training courses for solar panel installation and helped share information regarding reducing plastic use, amongst other topics relevant to the emerging ecotourism industry. She trained village members on how to prepare food, welcome guests, raise chickens and grow vegetables, and now earns money serving meals to tourists who come to witness the area’s splendorous wildlife. Reflecting on the changes observed in her home village she notes that women in particular are more skilled and brave, with economic independence helping them avoid domestic violence.

Horn Thida. Photos by Pha Nem.

The success of climate resilience and ecosystem safeguarding efforts in the MFF can also be observed via individual animals. If organizations like WWF-Cambodia in partnership with local communities achieve their goals, it will mean Irrawaddy dolphins continue to play in the deep waters that rush between riverbanks covered in lush vegetation. Difficult to spot, a quick glimpse of a tail fin flicking above the current may signal that this special region of the Mekong River has hope for a healthy future.

Photo by Tan Somethbunwath.

Climate Resilient by Nature (CRxN) is an Australian Government initiative, in partnership with WWF-Australia, advancing high-integrity, equitable nature-based solutions to climate change in the Indo-Pacific. Funding for this project in Vietnam is provided by the Mekong Australia Partnership – Water, Energy and Climate.

[Top image provided by Sina Pha]

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