Monks Rally for Mekong Dolphins

Saffron clad Buddhist monks lead a pilgrimage through Koh Pdao, a small village along the Mekong River in Cambodia. Dozens of villagers follow, displaying banners and posters of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin.

The rare dolphins, characterized by rounded heads and no beak, are getting increasingly harder to spot: Just 85 are estimated to exist in a 124-mile stretch of the Mekong River between Kratie, Cambodia and Laos. This critically endangered population is now the focus of a major partnership between WWF’s Sacred Earth program and Buddhist monks.

A sacred connection
In Cambodia, where people strongly respect and follow Buddhist practices, monks are an effective voice for environmental awareness and protection of endangered species. The monks apply Buddhist teachings to encourage an ecological view that warns against environmental exploitation. Mekong dolphins are sacred to Khmer Buddhists, and an important source of income for communities involved in dolphin-watching ecotourism activities and for business owners in Kratie.

Launched at a sacred ceremony organized by the Association of Buddhists for the Environment (ABE), the program encourages people to value the dolphin, and is designed to help reduce the biggest threat to dolphins in the Mekong—gillnet fishing. When a dolphin gets entangled in gillnets, the result is often fatal.

The monks are also encouraging the protection of other dolphin habitat and reducing river pollution from villages and agricultural areas. The monks have spread the word to more than 1,000 villagers and 400 schoolchildren living near dolphin habitat through

  • educational materials
  • organized meetings
  • guided pilgrimages

Building a future for Irrawaddy dolphins
In addition to their work at the village level, ABE has also organized high-level meetings with government officials and other stakeholders. All these groups hold monks in high regard and ABE has skillfully conducted meetings and negotiations on sensitive issues.

Building on 20 years of experience in the region, WWF’s Greater Mekong program will continue to work with the Cambodian government, and help coordinate transboundary conservation efforts with Laos, to protect the Irawwady dolphins of the Mekong.

This story was originally published in FOCUS, WWF’s bi-monthly member newsletter. Become a member today.