Written by William Bleisch, PhD
Photography by Henley Leong

Mandalay and the Ayeyawaddy River

Dolphin good-bye. As we finished our first interview, in Myitkangyi Village, we asked for any news of dolphin mortality.The village head and other informants responded that one female dolphin about 4.5 feet in length had been killed in Jan. 2013. He went on to say another had been killed in May near Yallin Village. I moaned and put down my pen, but he was not finished. Another dolphin, 2 and a half feet long, so almost surely a calf, was killed in August in Tha Yat Bin. And another… By the time he was done, he had listed a total of five killings, all in 2013, including two calves. All five had been electrocuted, killed by electrofishing.

We are inside the Ayeyawaddy River Wildlife Sanctuary, a 74 km stretch of river that is protected by the Department of Fisheries in Mandalay. This wildlife sanctuary, already identified by the Ministry of Environment as a highest priority for investment in conservation of biodiversity, is officially protected with regular river patrols to stop illegal fishing and restrictions on infrastructure development up to 1 mile from the banks.

The trip this far had gone smoothly for a change. After arriving in Mandalay from Kunming on January 2, I joined Henley Leung in the baggage claim, who had arrived from Hong Kong via Bangkok. We were joined the next morning by Mr. Aung Myo Chit, an independent wildlife biologist, who came up by bus from Yangon, and by Su Lai Chit, a biologist with an interest in forest restoration along the river. On January 4 at 9:26 AM, we all set out from the sandy quay in Mandalay heading up the Ayeyawaddy River on board the good ship Dolphin, with Captain Myo Lwin Htay, an experienced river pilot, at the helm, and his wife and daughter and young baby in the galley. While mom played with baby in the cabin, we began our visual surveys from the top deck at Min Kun, the site of a massive ruin, the base of a never completed pagoda, destroyed by an earthquake in 1839. Min Kun also marks the southernmost boundary of the wildlife sanctuary.

By 12:30, we had already spotted our first group of Irrawaddy Dolphin, just 19.8 km above Min Kun. Their blue grey shapes broke the water with a whoosh as they gracefully caught a breath before diving back below. By Mr. Aung’s tally, this group included 3 mother-calf pairs and 3 individual dolphins, for a total of 9 dolphins at least. Like nearly all of the groups that we spotted over the next 4 days, these dolphins were in a deep pool in the river, and appeared to be fishing, surfacing regularly in a small area. They did not actively avoid our boat, at times approaching to within 10 meters, but did appear to stay below longer when other boats passed quickly through the area. Thanks to the keen eyes of Mr. Aung and the captain, we contacted 5 groups of dolphins, with a minimum total number of individuals of 28, including 4 calves. If correct, this would represent over 25% of the estimated total dolphin population on the river.

Irrawaddy Dolphin surfacing. Since 1996, dolphin surveys by direct counts have been carried out regularly by the Department of Fisheries with support from WCS. Another survey is scheduled for 2014 February [sic]. Until his departure to study in at James Cook University in Australia in 2012, Mr. Aung was involved in the surveys, working closely with Dr. Brian Smith from WCS. Our main purpose on this trip was not to repeat that work, but to explore possible projects in the villages along the banks that could build local support for the sanctuary and for protection of the dolphins.

We conducted interviews of village leaders and fish contractors in several spots along the banks of the dolphin sanctuary. We were particularly interested in those villages where fishermen fish cooperatively with the dolphins. Dolphins and fishermen have learned to work together to the benefit of both. Dolphin will respond to signals from the fishermen and herd fish into the range of the fishermen’s cast nets on cue. In return, the dolphins have an easier time catching the panic stricken fish that are not caught in the nets. Cooperative fishing has been reported from several villages in the middle Irrawaddy; from Seinpangone, Myayzun, Myitkangyi and Sithi. The river has recently changed its course, however, leaving Seinpangone and Myayzun village inland and isolated from the dolphins. We concentrated our interviews in Myitkangyi and Sithi. We also interviewed several fish contractors who had won the bids for 3 years of rights to fishing concessions along the river.

We had already prepared a list of questions for the villagers. Mr. Aung asked questions in a semi-structured interview format, with Henley’s prompting to insure that we had covered all the issues. In two villages, we also carried out an informal transect survey and mapping exercise of the village.

Su Lai Chit, Burmese biologist interviewing local. Villages along the rivers have a mix of farmers and fishermen. Land is scarce, less than a tenth of a hectare per family. Farmers here grow mainly peanuts, and also beans and maize, with squash, bananas, tamarind and mangos in the fence rows. The pale humped Brahmin cattle are ubiquitous here, as are chickens. Fishing for most people is a seasonal occupation, during the peak season of August and September when the river floods. But some people are hired by the contractors to help them catch fish trapped in ox-bow lakes isolated from the river during the dry season.

We watched the fishermen bring in one afternoon’s catch, pulling in row upon row of gillnets stretched across the narrow lake, and at the end of the day, delivering a heavy load of wallago catfish, featherfin knife-fish and carp. This scene is repeated twice a day, day after day, proving just how lucrative the concessions are, and explaining why contractors would bid up to 40 lek (about $4,000 USD) for the rights to three years of harvesting.

In addition to giving us a basic background to the lives of the villagers and the economics of the fish concessions, the interviews also revealed some shocking recent news about the dolphins.

By using an electric charge from a car battery and two electrodes on the end of bamboo poles, fishermen can stun or kill nearly every fish in the water. Electrofishing was formerly carried out occasionally by individual fishermen at night in secret, since it is illegal in Myanmar. It has now reached a crisis. In the past, village patrol teams stopped several of the electrofishermen and confiscated their gear. Now, the electrofishermen have formed a criminal gang, travelling together in 6 to 10 boats. Using gill nets rigged to shock the fish and armed with sling shots and baked clay pellets, this criminal gang began openly fishing during the day. They warned at least one village that if villagers reported them to the authorities, they would retaliate and burn the village down.

Fish in the local market. Reports from other villagers and from fish concessionaires up and down the river confirmed these accounts. Cooperative fishermen in Sithe Village reported that the dolphin are now too afraid of fishing boats to cooperate with them. We learned that the poachers all came from a group of 14 villages on a tributary of the Irrawaddy, each village name starting with Mwe (snake), named after an important monastery in their midst, Mwe An Do.

The population of Irrawaddy Dolphin in the river was known to be about 72 in 2004, and it cannot be much more than that now. Most of the dolphins were found above the Second Defile, outside of the wildlife sanctuary. These dolphins are believed to give birth only once in every three years, and it is likely that only one third of the population are reproductive females. That means that fewer than ten calves are produced each year on the entire river. Some are killed when they become entangled in fixed gillnets left untended. Electrofishing greately increases the mortality. If more are killed than are born each year, it will not be long before the population on the Irrawaddy goes extinct.

We travelled there and interviewed several village leaders. Henley and I were a bit nervous; entering into the den of the criminals, but the villagers welcomed us and talked openly. Mr. Aung was careful not to bring up the topic of electrofishing, but one of the leaders volunteered the information that the poachers are wanted by the police, who arrived with a warrant for the arrest of one of them. That poacher has fled. Hopefully the news will scare the others enough to make them stop their activities and give the dolphins a reprieve.

The situation is not hopeless. Local people support the conservation of the dolphins, and the cooperative fishermen in particular benefit from their presence. They try to protect them in every way they can. The cooperative fishermen have said that they would be happy to give up gillnets for more traditional cast nets if they could get financial support for the nets. Made from silk and weighted with lead, a large cast net costs less than 20 lek (about $200 USD). Only cast nets are used in cooperative fishing with the dolphins. Once more widespread, Sithe and Myitkangyi are apparently now the only places where this traditional practice can still be seen. Tourists might be willing to pay into a village development fund for the right to see this unique gem of the cultural and natural heritage of Myanmar.