Irrawaddy Dolphins: The Smiling Faces of the Mekong

dolphin jumping

The trademark curved mouth of the Irrawaddy dolphin led to the animal’s nickname: the “smiling face of the Mekong.” They travel in groups of no more than 10 and solitary dolphins are rarely seen. Unfortunately, populations of this rare species are shrinking. Dangerous fishing practices and habitat degradation from the development of dams, deforestation and mining are putting the future of Irrawaddy dolphins at great risk.

Learn more about the species and what WWF is doing to help:

Where do Irrawaddy dolphins live?

Irrawaddy dolphins are an unusual species with small populations found in Southeast Asia, ranging from India’s Chilka Lake to the Malampaya Sound in the Philippines and freshwater rivers like the Ayeyarwady in Myanmar, the Mahakam in Indonesian Borneo, and the Mekong between Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao PDR.

What are the biggest threats to Irrawaddy dolphins?

Irrawaddy dolphins are directly threatened by bycatch, when they accidentally get caught in fishing gear meant to net other fish.

Research has found many dolphins, especially calves, die from unclear causes. Researchers have found contaminants like DDT and PCBs, but it is not clear if this is having an impact on the dolphins, or if they are dying from something else. These pollutants may also pose a health risk to human populations living along the Mekong that consume the same fish and water as the dolphins.

Dams also threaten the survival of these dolphins. In Lao PDR, the proposed Don Sahong hydropower project is located just one kilometer upstream of the core habitat for Mekong dolphins, which could hasten their extinction from the Mekong River. Today, between only 78 and 91 individuals are estimated to exist in the entire Mekong River.

How does WWF help Irrawaddy dolphins?

WWF works with local communities to develop fishery management zones to help sustain the fish population and conserve the Irrawaddy dolphins. We also conduct research to determine how the dolphin population is fairing and the impact of climate change on the Mekong River. WWF ensures sustainable hydropower development to maintain the ecosystem integrity of the Mekong river.

Why save dolphins?

The dolphins are an important indicator of the health and sound management of the freshwater resources, and their decline could signal a potentially devastating decline in the health of the entire river ecosystem. Mekong dolphins also have great cultural significance to local communities and bring tangible livelihood benefits. Dolphin-watching tours are a major contributor to growth, bringing in much needed income to local communities.