Irrawaddy dolphins – Myanmar’s latest UNESCO Heritage Site?

photo_1_16 U Maung Lay waits with his fishing net, as the Irrawaddy dolphin herds up the fish. Photos: WCS (Myanmar).

20 Nov 2020 - Source: Myanmar Times - Irrawaddy dolphins, so-named after the old name for Myanmar's largest river, are amiable, agile and incredibly cute. Though very few tourists and travellers have had the pleasure of encountering them in the wild, a small group of conservationists hope to change all that.

Nature Advocacy, which is made up of an assortment of conservationists, activists and passionate volunteers, have joined forces to bring the world's attention to these estuarine creatures. Together, they have asked the government to submit an application to UNESCO to have the dolphins' habitats protected as a World Natural Heritage site. The group is not only seeking to protect the dolphins and their river environs, but also the unique relationship they have with the river's human users – particularly through the tradition of 'cooperative fishing'.

A practice that has been passed on through generations of Ayerwaddy communities, cooperative fishing involves communicating with dolphins to catch fish. The fishermen use a language of bangs and taps on the bow, whilst the dolphins communicate by slapping the water with their tales, and together they work to herd fish towards the boat. When the fish are in casting distance, the dolphin signals to the fishermen with a wave of its fluke. Poised on the edge of the boat, the fishermen respond to the call by casting their nets.

Nature Advocacy are currently collecting signatures in support of the UNESCO bid. The dolphin's habitat has been designated a "dolphin protected area" since 2005, though enforcement of protection laws is currently lacking. By having the area also recognised as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, the organisation hope to improve legal protection for the dolphins.
The group have so far collected over 13,600 signatures.

A graduate from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, with a dual degree in bioengineering and business management, Nyein Zaw Ko is the founder of Nature Advocacy. He has been collecting data on Irrawaddy dolphins and dolphin tours since 2019. Since the first wave of COVID-19 in March, news spread of Irrawaddy dolphins being killed by electrocution as some unscrupulous fishermen took advantage of the quiet traffic on the river. Passing electric currents through the water can net hundreds of fish quickly, at a grave cost to the dolphins. In response Nyein Zaw Ko launched the "Save Irrawaddy Dolphin" online campaign, the first grassroots movement to protect Myanmar's dolphins.

"Irrawaddy dolphins have been killed by humans for decades. Until now, nobody has been serious about protecting them. According to a survey conducted in early 2020, only one out of every three people living in the city even know that the dolphins exist," Nyein Zaw Ko said.

His online campaign had sparked interest from a range of different people, both local and overseas. But as COVID-19 has dominated the news, followed by the recent elections and economic turmoil, attention has turned to other hot issues. Nature Advocacy, however, is the only advocacy group for the dolphins and have continued their campaign all year. Their consistent efforts have attracted more conservationists, activists and animal lovers who are passionate about saving the dolphins. Last week, the trio were recipients of the coveted WWF-Myanmar Planet Hero award, and their work has been recognised as model case study by Oxford University.

"Conserving the Irrawaddy dolphins is conserving the Ayeyarwady river. It will be easier to call a halt to projects such as the Myitsone dam if the dolphin's habitat [and cooperative fishing] is registered as a UNESCO world natural heritage site. Other destructive projects will automatically be stopped," said Htet Wa Na, campaign leader of Save the Irrawaddy Dolphin online campaign. Htet Wa Na studied environmental engineering at Nagoya University and has been working as an environmental engineer in the field of construction.

With public support the team have submitted a request to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture to complete the application process with UNESCO on behalf of the local fishermen. The team will be collecting data regarding the Irrawaddy dolphins, fishing histories and tales related to the dolphins, as part of the application process. They have interviewed a number of fishermen who continue to practice cooperative fishing.

"Dolphins are not fish that we catch to eat. We have to change the public view on them, so we appreciated them as treasures to be preserved. Unless there is a will to preserve them, our laws aren't enough to protect the dolphins," Nyein Zaw Ko said.
Nyein Zaw Ko and his team advocate for the passing of effective legislation for the conservation of the critically endangered Ayeyarwady dolphins.

In the past, only conservationists cared about the survival of the Irrawaddy dolphins. During three months of running their online campaign, more people are getting interested and involved, speaking out about the killing of dolphins on social media.

"Cooperative fishing has been practiced for generations in the Ayeyarwady River, which is why the tradition should be recognised as a UNESCO's world natural heritage site. It is a true cultural tradition. The number of dolphins has declined in recent years, posing a threat to the custom," he said.

Fishermen and residents who earn money from dolphin tours will also face financial difficulties should dolphin numbers decline further.

Nature Advocacy are currently running financial initiatives on the ground to support local river patrol groups, and to assist community-based ecotourism programs. The have invited celebrities, influencers and key opinion leaders to the dolphin protected area to revive the endangered "cooperative fishing culture".

"Those who practice electrofishing came to the dolphins' habitat. Their offspring lost their lives due to electrofishing," said U Maung Lay, who has followed in his father's footsteps as a cooperative fisherman since 1984.

Nature Advocacy will be encouraging the government and general public to work together to protect the dolphins with stringent laws. They would also like to showcase the unique cooperative fishing culture to the world by promoting ecotourism throughout the dolphin habitats. Part of the Save Irrawaddy Dolphin Week will be hosted online from November 22 to 28, with speakers giving talks and locals sharing stories about the dolphins. There will be a drawing competition and a general knowledge quiz, organised with the help of BANCA-Birdlife, FFI and WWF-Myanmar.

Fisherman's Friend: The Irrawaddy Dolphin documentary film will also be screened on the Green Age Film Production Facebook page. The film is directed by We Ra Aung, a filmmaker who had spent six years chasing the rare dolphins.

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