Irrawaddy’s Virgin At The Mercy Of the Aqua-Hunters’ Illegal Acts

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If the River Irrawaddy is to be regarded as the mother river, the Irrawaddy Dolphins are, then, to be named the Virgins of the Irrawaddy.

The lovely-faced animals are called in different names- Irrawaddy-dolphins, fresh-water dolphins, rounded-mouthed dolphins, dugongs, etc. There is no other place in the whole world than the one in the river where the traditional practice of fishing by man in collaboration with dolphin can be seen. “The peculiar tradition of the fishing style is indeed a high pride of us, our country.” proudly said one U Maung Maung Oo, who is taking part in the work of Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation Team.

However, at present, the animals are facing the great danger of extinction, and if their conservation works is not properly and effectively done they might extinct. In fact, the dolphins are now becoming one of the species, which are cursed animal resource under the very challenge of extinction.

The background history of the fresh-water dolphins.

The fresh-water dolphins of the River Irrawaddy have been, as recorded in the chronicles of history, existing there since the 8th Century A.D of Pyu Era in Myanmar, meaning that they had existed there for 1200 years.

In the work process of the excavation of an old Pyu City, Beik-tha-no, some material evidence of dolphins were found. Some history researchers said that it on a broken pot of the time was found a drawing of fish with a smiling face, that it can be assumed the drawing refers to a dolphin.

Besides, in a historical record of China’s Tang Dynasty contemporary to Pyu Era in Myanmar, it was written that a group of Chinese merchants found some dugongs in River Irrawaddy when they visited places in the middle part of Myanmar. Researchers said the term ‘water-pig (dugon)’ may refer to dolphins.

Until late 19th century, the animals had not yet been named ‘Irrawaddy Dolphins’. Fortunately, a famous naturalist of his time, Mr. John Anderson arrived in Myanmar, made aquatic studies along Irrawaddy for 8 years from 1872 to 1879. Mr. Anderson found a new fish species, the fresh-water dolphins in the river, and he named them ‘Irrawaddy-Dolphins’ as they were found in the River Irrawaddy. Since then, any fresh-water dolphins found anywhere in the world have been called ‘Irrawaddy Dolphins’ as such animal species was first found in River Irrawaddy. Its zoological term is ‘Orcaella brevirostris’.

The fresh-water Irrawaddy dolphin has round-mouth. Its pregnant period takes 14 months and breast-feeding is 18 months long. It is a smoke-colored mammal living in water. Its birth rate is one at one time. Its main food is fish, its length is 2 to 8 feet, and its life span is round about 50 years.

In Myanmar, the species is found not only in Irrawaddy, (Mandalay-Bamoh Sector) but in Irrawaddy Delta, Rakhine Coastal Region and Myeik Archipelagoes also.

According to the Fishery Departments statistics, the population of the animal is 79 in Irrawaddy river tract, about 20 in Irrawaddy Delta, about 70 in Rakhine Coastal Region, and 60 in Myeik Archipelagoes. The statistics of the dolphins is of the calculation is made just after 2010.

As stated by the dolphin researchers, it is known the fresh-water dolphins can be found in Northern Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines, Bay of Bengal, River Ganges of Northeastern India, River Mahakumbh of Indonesia, River Brahma Puttra of Bangladesh, and along River Mikhone of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The dolphins that help fishermen

Thought the fresh-water dolphins are found in many parts of the world, it can be seen those living in River Irrawaddy only helping Myanmar fishermen in their fishing work. It is said that the collaboration of the animals with fishers in their fishing process has been a tradition for centuries as for the mutual interest of both the animals and fishers.

One U Maung Lay, 58, who had traditionally lived on fishing since his early teens inherited fishing techniques including that of collaboration with dolphins in fishing. He said, “The dolphins are like our friends as well as our parents…. they feed us”. He lives in Sin-kyun village, Madhaya Township, and became a fisher by 1984. He now works as a teammate of Irrawaddy Dolphins Conservation Team too. “After that time, it was recorded there were 72 of them…,” he recounted.

Not all fishers are skilled in the technique of fishing in collaboration with dolphins. The technique is like this:-

A stick made of teakwood is needed. With that stick, the fisher has to beat his fishing-boat’s side to signal dolphins, and to give a loud cough, and shout ‘ka-doo-ka-doo’ to them they know the fishing is started. Then the fisher has to throw the fishing-net into the water.

In such a way signaled, dolphins will have the sense the fisher gets near to them, and then they will drive fishes to the boat. When fishes get nearer to the boat, the leader of dolphins rise to the water surface, and splash the water with its tail to signal that fishes are near the boat so that the fisher starts throwing nets into the water for catching them.

U Maung Lay, the net-thrower fisher said, “We catch the fish with the net-throwing method, and dolphins have the chance to feed themselves by catching and eating those that spill out of the net. That’s indeed the work of natural interest.”

One U Maung Maung Oo opined, “Irrawaddy dolphins are to be regarded higher than an ordinary animal.” He continued that they are to be valued so because such ones which used to cooperate with fishers can be found only in Irrawaddy though the same species are found in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, etc. He also warned, “Both the government and the Myanmar people are responsible to conserve such valuable animals like the Irrawaddy dolphins.”

The danger of fishing by means of electric shock

All those who are involved in the Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation Work agreed that the most challenging danger to the dolphins is the fishing method of electric shock. That method is locally called ‘fishing by battery shock’. The fishing method of electrocuting kills not only fishes but also other aquatic animals around the area where it is done. In the area where the dolphins live, they too died of electrocuted. They anxiously said that the said bad method easily kills not only fishes but the innocent dolphins also while the ecological system there is getting ruined.

“No sooner had the electric shocking method is used than the plentifulness of fishes drop”, sighed U San Lwin who is a fisher of Myit-kan-gyi Village, Singu Township. The 60 year old man living on fishery work said that the death rate of the dolphins was very low, being just one in a decade in the past, and now that after 2010 when the cruel and unlawful method of electric shocking appeared, they often died. U Maung Lay added, “Besides, being electrocuted, they lose their lives by unfortunately hitting the nets dropped by some fishers but not carefully watched”. He said, “Anyway, only two died of hitting by themselves into the nets since 1984 up to the present by many died of being electrocuted.” The electric shocking area of a fishing boat is about 50 square feet perimeter, and whatever the depth may be the fishes or dolphins would not escape if they were in that perimeter. They would surely die. Dolphins are able to known in advance of electric shock, but they cannot escape immediate electrocuting, as a fisher he said.

For a fisher using net-throwing method of fishing needs to know the currents of the river, have rowing skill, keeping fishing nets in the seen, and their mending whereas those applying battery-shocking method only needs to be skilled in electric shocking, being quite good for them even if they cannot row properly. They need not to know much about fishing, and so almost all might do such kind of job.

Shockers, in particular, make more fish and earn more money than traditional fishers. “Because of that, the fishermen of the present prefer electric shocking method to the traditional ones!” noted U Han Win, the in-charge officer of Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation Team, Fisheries Department.

He said, “Previously, there were legal actions against those who violated the fres-hwater fishery laws, and the penalty is 3 years imprisonment and kyats 3 lakh fine.

Although the use of illegal methods of fishing are prohibited by laws, and the exact penalty prescribed, the offenders have to practically serve only for a very few months of imprisonment, and for that reason, law-abiding is still so weak.

U Han Win remarked, “Effectiveness of law on those law-breakers being so weak that, they continue violating it daring by due to the interest they gain, and that’s why they don’t discard the illegal means.”

In addition, there arising gold mining work in the river, resulting in dust and mercury intoxication to all aqua creatures including dolphins living in those areas. According to the report by the Wildlife Conservation Society (Myanmar), there also occur challenges and damages to the dolphins that have to shift their living area, as well as being often hit by the gold mining boats’ paddles.

Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation and Government’s Role

The government’s conservation work started only by 2000. However, the fishery workers along the river, including U Maung Lay, U San Lwin and many others have done their conservation long time ago.

Even the work of World Wildlife Conservation Society that conducts its network in Myanmar was started only by 2007. The Myanmar Fishery Department could, with the assistance of the Wildlife Conservation Society (Myanmar), limit the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area from Min Gunn (Nan-daw-kyun) to Kyauk-myaung along the River Irrawaddy on 28 December 2005.

“The collaboration fishing action of human fishers with dolphins can be found in the river of Myanmar only, and so the tradition is to be conserved, and that’s why we should, in all means, protect the dolphins from being extinct.” Remarked U Kyaw Hla Thein, the In-charge officer of Wildlife Conservation Society (Myanmar).

By 2018, Htigyaink-Katha-Shwegun Sector along the River Irrawaddy became the Limited Area-2 for the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area.

The Fishery Department declared that electric shocking method of fishing dwindled since patrolling by the Department was done twice a month. However, the patrolling in the river could not continue due to Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in the death toll of the animals went up to seven.

In fact, 2020 is both good-fated and ill-fated for the Irrawaddy dolphins. By the year 2020, the number of dolphins counted is altogether 79, in accordance to the Fishery Department’s counting since it started the work in 2002. But, according to its statistic, the number of the death of the animal is 7 in the same year, 2020, leaving 72 only alive.

The statistic being taken in September shows the death toll is 7, meaning that the 7 died in the year 2020 before its end. It is the record high since its official counting.

According to the study and opinion of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Irrawaddy dolphins of the river are facing the danger of their extinction. The living number currently counted being 79 in 2020, it is said that it shows their conservation done could not raise its living number to a certain height, but only to that of marginal one.

Anyhow, U Maung Maung Oo who has been working in depth in the matter of Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation revealed differently. He said that there might be some difference, in counting the animals between local folks and government departments’ workers as the counting was being made at different areas by estimation. “It is possible that the off springs that had not been seen and counted last year might be seen and counted this year. It such a thing happened, it can be said ‘rising’, but found no other way for rising of living number.”

He added, “The number of the dolphins does not considerably rise because the enforcement of law is weak, law-abiding by individuals is also weak, and their protection though improved, many more are still to be educated.”

U Maung Maung Oo continued to explain that the electric shock fishers did have the information in advance when the patrol-boat would come. “The authorities concerned wailed how the information leaked, and what I am saying is about the weakness in law enforcing side”, he said.

At present, it is learnt from WCS (Myanmar) that there is a one-year plan to extinguish fishing by electric shock between Mandalay and Kyauk-myaung commening September 1st of this year. Irrawaddy Dolphins Conservation Society under the Mandalay Region Fishery Department, Wildlife Conservation Society (Myanmar), Maritime Police Force, Township Fishery Department concerned, grouped for materialization of the plan, and daily patrolling is being made.

U San Lwin, a seasoned fisher said, “WCS has requested to the villages along the river to provide two from each village at the honorarium payment of 6000 Kyats per day for their labor, and tha tif such organizations do in the same way, both sides (government and local folks) would be satisfied and good for long-term conservation from WCS (Myanmar) is that at the end of September, the first month of the plan, 8 electric shocker boats with 4 boat-men were captured, and they are now under legal action.

U San Lwin also explained that the fishers using the method of net throwing into the river caught fished lesser and lesser, and so their earning by fishing become more and more despaired. Only when alien visitors come there to see the traditional fishing style, the local folks have the opportunity to earn some money by showing the peculiar way of fishing.

“For this year, 2020, our living on fishing becomes more and more desperate, due to Covid-19 and death tolls of the dolphins rising,” murmured U San Lwin.

It is badly needed that the local folks especially the native fishes must have firm sense for the kind protection of Irrawaddy Dolphins as well as adoring the animals.

U Han Win, with much regret, said that the fishers, though they have the loving kindness on the dolphins, have to inevitably substitute the electric shock method in place of the traditional one they had used for decades as their income dwindles due to the rareness of fishes.

Conservation of the live resources

Because of electric shock fishing method, fresh-water fish resources, fresh-water animal resources and fresh-water living creatures’ change of food are dwindling day after day. U ye Min Tun, the legislator of Mandalay Region Kyaukse Constituency-1 told the media of the matter as mentioned above.

Those who use electrocution method is fishing roam across the whole Mandalay region, riding on motorcycles to fish. Because of their cruel and illegal use of the method when they fish not only fishes and prawns or lobsters, but all other aquatic creatures big or small are dead. “They electrical tools for fishing imported into our country are so powerful that even the big fish die of electric shocks made by those who use them. The death of Irrawaddy dolphins are often heard because of such people’s acts,” told U Ye Min Tun in a Hluttaw Session on 9 June of the year. On the same day at the Session, Dr. Kyaw Oo, the legislator of Aung Myay Thazan Township Constituency-2, raised a question to the Hluttaw whether there is an emergency program for the protection of the Irrawaddy dolphins from being endangered by the electric shockers.

In reply to the said question by Dr. Kyaw Oo, the Minister for Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Irrigation explained to the Regional Hluttaw that an emergency program for such protection is not needed since there had been a planned action arranged by the united effort by a group of departments that includes the police force and civil administration for the dolphin conservation by educating and warning local fishers and folks not to use electric shocking method of fishing that is illegal.

Dr. Kyaw Oo argued that, by the fishers using the methods of electric shock in the river, dropping the fishing net lengthily across the river, using intoxication drugs, or keeping fishing net with the length of more than 300 feet across two banks, or using the method of mine-blasting, leading to the death of the dolphins together with other fishes.

On 4 March 2020, a list of wildlife animals being conserved was issued as the species are being endangered to be extinct included in the list are Irrawaddy dolphins. Of such animals listed under conservation, the dolphins are also put in the list of animals which can be raised. The list was published on 3 June 2020. The publication mentioned that the dolphin raising would be allowed for zoological and tourist businesses. On that, Irrawaddy dolphin lovers widely argued that  the species is not as easy as other ones to be raised since their living nature is quite different from other aquatic animals. These were suggestions that the dolphins are to be let free naturally rather than keeping them in zoological gardens, and to develop tourism by showing tourists their very nature of life.

Meanwhile, there was an important work done by some local folks as regard dolphins. It is an establishment of a business under the title “Dolphin Community Lodge” in April, 2019 at a village called ‘In-down’ on the bank of River Irrawaddy, Wet-let Township. It was initiated jointly by Irrawaddy Dolphin Conservation Association and village-based people’s tourism. Commencing on the day of its establishment and external tourists. The tourists who visit the place would have the opportunity to enjoy its natural beauty. They would also see the villagers’ hand-made looms, pots, bamboo hats etc. In addition, they would be able to study the first sanctuary forest, Taw-ya-gyee as well as Pyu’s ancient city, Han-lin.

But, the study of Irrawaddy Dolphins was barred since early April due to Covid-19 outbreak, and it is a great trouble for the local fishers.

The seasoned fisher of the place U Maung Lay stressed that thought it is not much certain when tourists would come back to their place, they had to make regular collaborative fishing practices with dolphins once every five day period so that the attachment between human fishers and animal fishers be going on existing.

U Maung Maung Oo who is the founder of ‘National Green Alliance for Environment Protection’ ardently said that one would see fresh-water dolphins swimming or amusing people with their lovely movements in water if one went to Mekong River. But, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to see dolphins’ collaborative fishing style with human fishers as in River Irrawaddy, and that they wouldn’t feel the attachment and friendship between them and fishers. He added, “The very strange and rare tradition of the fishing style has existed for a long time as a result of the very training of human by human and animal by animal of the way they both are doing now.” He continued, “If the traditional practice failed to continue existing, it would be a shame and confession of our impotency for losing of such world-known natural resource of us Myanmar at our time. Similarly, Dr. Kyaw Oo, a Mandalay Regional Parliamentarian said he was of much anxiety that the Irrawaddy dolphins might extinct. He also warned, “If we failed to conserve the dolphins earliest found in the world, in River Irrawaddy and named after the river, we would in the future have to go to other lands where such dolphins continue to exist, and see them with tragic hearts, and so we must be enthusiastic in the work of protecting them from being extinct.

(Report by Magwe Post)