The Mekong Dolphin and the Paradox of Ecotourism
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
The Mekong dolphin (Figure 1), otherwise known as the Irrawaddy dolphin, of the Mekong river is a freshwater species classified to be ‘critically endangered’ in recent years. Although it is a sacred animal in Buddhist culture and is not hunted for food by locals, the dolphin often ends up as by-catch in fishermen’s gillnets. The dolphin is also under the threats of environmental pollution, such as poisonous mercury being released from mining upstream, as well as dam construction which hinders fish migration and decreases fish supplies for the dolphins to consume. As a result, only 92 dolphins remain today.
In efforts to conserve the dolphins, ecotourism, marketed by NGOs to be a sustainable, environmentally-conscious form of tourism that encourages empowerment of locals, was introduced to the region by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). While the discourse is concentrated with voices speaking for the conservation of the natural environment, local livelihoods and the wider political-economic landscape are often overlooked. Thus, this article aims to shed light on the much-silenced perspectives of the locals by discussing the significance of dolphin ecotourism to the local economy at Kratie, Cambodia.
ECOTOURISM AND THE MEKONG DOLPHIN
Unlike other provinces in Cambodia, Kratie boasts to be the “haven for the nature lovers and the wildlife conservationists” due to its prime location near the Mekong River which is inhabited by the beloved dolphins. Located 15km away from the town, the Dolphin Habitat is a popular nature reserve amongst tourists.
WWF-Cambodia has been actively engaging the community and the government in conserving the Mekong dolphins, such as establishing “10 community fish conservation zones in 10 villages across 4 communes in Sambour district” and educating locals on sustainable tourism. We visited their office in Cambodia (Figure 2) and their representative, Mr. Veasna, shared that WWF has been partnering with these locals through the Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) approach, which requires locals to contribute part of their ecotourism earnings back to support WWF conservation efforts of the Mekong dolphins. For instance, “5% of the annual profits [are] contributed to the patrolling team [who] protects the forest [and] the species”. The continued conservation efforts by the three stakeholders have resulted in the dolphin population seeing its first increase in 20 years.
Our visit to WWF-Cambodia
This partnership has likewise benefitted locals - many people living nearby are employed in ecotourism either as boatmen, souvenir work related to the dolphins (Figure 3), or conducting eco-tours (Figure 4). According to the boatman Mr. Keurn, the only legal way for both domestic and foreign tourists to visit the dolphins is to purchase tickets from the booth at Kampi. After which, an authorised boatman will ferry them to the site via a yellow boat. He also shared that the dolphins attract tourists who then contribute to the improvement of local living conditions, such as helping to plant vegetables and construct toilets; this sentiment is echoed in an interview with a Koh Pdao resident, another famous dolphin ecotourism area, though she is not directly involved in the provision of ecotourist services.
Wooden dolphin keychains at a souvenir shop.
Various banners, such as above, are seen around Kratie marketing eco-friendly dolphin tours.
VALUING THE DOLPHINS: PUTTING A PRICE TAG ON LIFE?
From our interviews with the locals at Koh Pdao and Mr. Keurn himself, we believe that the locals have adopted a neoliberalist view towards dolphin conservation rather than an ecocentric approach to conservation. Ecocentrism refers to recognising the intrinsic value of the Mekong dolphin ‒ a value that the animal has in itself for what it is, that is regardless of their usefulness or importance to human beings and a genuine appreciation for the dolphins as an organism. From this interview with Mr. Men Vichaka, we see the motivations behind locals’ conservationist attitude:
Our community also realizes how important protecting the environment is in attracting tourism [emphasis added]. Hosting tourists allows us to earn more income and to improve our lives, and by giving them the opportunity to see wildlife in our community, we can offer them an unforgettable experience and hopefully encourage more tourists to come! Tourism has really upgraded our standard of living and has drastically reduced poverty by providing jobs to the villagers.
Rather surprisingly, WWF-Cambodia also adopts and promotes the neoliberalist view; its key message for Freshwater Dolphin Day 2018 was “Dolphin swimming in the Mekong River is for sustainable fish stocks and increasing eco-tourists”.
As a result, there are some occasions whereby ecotourists feel that the local community’s methods in the provision of ecotourism services may do more harm than good to the dolphins. A quick search on TripAdvisor about the Mekong River Dolphin revealed a number of tourist reviews that expressed the same concerns on the sustainability of Kratie’s ecotourism. For example, user aidan_lob1 lamented:
Cheap price makes it accessible to many, so River is often incredibly crowded with boats and ruins the tranquility of the setting and distracts from the grace of the dolphins. The engines are ridiculously loud and likely scared off the dolphins given the low amount we saw. Would not recommend as you barely get more than a glimpse of their backs and it is disrupting [sic] to their lifestyle.
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