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In Cambodia, Under the Stars and Alongside Dolphins

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“WWF taught us how to greet tourists, and how to provide better services.”

Vanna Hoy
Deputy Chief for Ecotourism

With remarkable energy, Vanna Hoy jumps out of our wooden longboat, grabs it by the edge and pulls it a little closer onto the sandy banks of a tiny island in the Mekong River, where he works as a deputy chief for ecotourism. The full moon is already high up in the sky as the sun starts to set between the rolling mountains, dense with trees.

Here, right where the mighty Mekong exits Laos and starts its journey through Cambodia, we’ve opted to spend the night in tents, surrounded by six critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins and millions of stars shimmering in the sky.

Thousands of visitors arrive each year to see these amazing mammals in their natural habitat, most of them by Kayak. But camping here, Vanna told us, was the way to go — a chance to indulge in the pristine nature and wildlife on offer in this reclusive and unique part of the world.

Vanna quickly fetches twigs from trees that spread to the north and south of the island. They’re so dry from roasting under an unforgiving sun that he doesn’t even need paper or accelerants to get our campfire going.

In the distance, we watch as the dolphins slowly surface to breathe, one after the other.

Tourists cruise along the Mekong in search of the charismatic, but highly threatened Irrawaddy dolphin.

Tourists cruise along the Mekong in search of the charismatic, but highly threatened Irrawaddy dolphin.

An increase in tourism

In the past, the so-called 4,000 islands on the Laos side of the border has attracted the bulk of tourism in this area. But with the support of WWF, Vanna tells us, the community on the Cambodian side of the border has seen an increase in tourism as well. The island, for example, was so much a part of everyday life that many found it hard to believe that foreigners would see something special in it.

“We had to learn what tourists like, and how to offer packages,” Vanna said. “WWF taught us how to greet tourists and how to provide better services,” he says.

A unique experience

Sitting around the campfire, Vanna tells us an old Cambodian story of a young woman who found herself in distress, walked into the Mekong and turned into a dolphin. For Cambodians, it’s the mammals’ origin story and part of the reason why the animals are so cherished and adored here.

“You see, the dolphins are very important to us,” Vanna says. He explains the many threats they face, from the construction of dams to pollution and overfishing. Locals here, he says, are worried about the dolphins’ future.

Some food for thought as we climb into our tents, illuminated by the full moon, with nothing but the crickets of the surrounding rain forests to sing us to sleep.

Helping dolphins at risk

Irrawaddy dolphins are a main tourism draw to the region, but they are under threat. All river dolphins need freshwater fish, quality water and safe migratory routes to survive. Poorly planned dams often reduce dolphins’ food supply, change water quality and destroy habitats. As dams are constructed, the dynamite and noise can harm river dolphins. Once the dam is up, increased boat traffic can lead to more injuries and deaths from collisions.

WWF encourages countries that share freshwater rivers and lakes to work together to manage the resource and protect the species that live there.

Take action. Tell global leaders to cooperate on fresh water.