Pilgrimage to the Mekong River dolphin

Environmentalist Matt Mellen travels across Cambodia in search of the endangered Mekong River dolphin, and finds the inspiration to fight for their protection

All I saw was the curved, beak-like head break the surface of the water, followed by the long back and short dorsal fin, but it was enough. A small part of this rare creature’s daily goings-on gave a giant stir to my soul – the Mekong River dolphin still exists.

The Mekong River drains an area of 800,000km². Its complex, meandering course brings melted Himalayan ice from China’s Yunnan province through Myanmar (formerly Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam.

Each country has a different name for the river. The English ‘Mekong’ is derived from the Thai/Lao versions and translates as ‘the mother of water’. For the diverse people who live within its bioregion, the river is central to their lives, providing food, livelihoods and trading routes.

The river and its surrounding land teem with life: 20,000 different plant species comprise the tangled banks and surge out of the murky depths; 1,200 varieties of bird; 800 types of reptiles and amphibians; and 430 types of mammal make their lives here.

But it is the Mekong River dolphin that holds iconic appeal. Large, intelligent, social and sensitive creatures like this need space to thrive; a population of river dolphins is testament to the health of the land and productivity of the ecosystem. As a dedicated nature lover and chronicler of environmental issues, the remaining river dolphins are sacred to me. They are totems of the wild world that I long to live in.

The poignancy of seeing the Mekong River dolphin is that they may not be here much longer. Rapid, unsustainable economic development has already caused the demise of the Yangtze River dolphin. Those same forces are now enveloping Cambodia. I wanted to see these wild animals and learn what I could about efforts to protect them. I hired a bike in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and headed out on a personal pilgrimage to find the Mekong River dolphin.

Crossing Cambodia by motorcycle is a journey back in time. North of the temples of Angkor Wat I glimpsed the slow life of close-knit, rural communities around paddy fields, which seemed perpetually lit by the golden rays of a setting sun. I was greeted wherever I went.

The journey felt adventurous, with the occasional hint of danger. While riding off-road I remembered, in a stomach-churning flash, that guidebooks warn of minefields off the main path.

“The remaining river dolphins are totems of the wild world that I long to live in”

Eventually I reached the dusty village of O’Svay and commandeered a boat to take me up the Mekong River. We sped upriver, passing ancient gnarly trees that had exotic distorted shapes from a lifetime of leaning into the weight of water. We made several turns and crossings to reach a stretch of water in which I saw the first signs of the dolphins. I tapped my guide’s arm and we climbed onto the bank to watch from a distance, thrilled to have a few moments in peace with these animals.

The magisterial Mekong River danced and sparkled. The beauty of the river, and the movement of the pod, seemed inseparable. I was spellbound. My heart was brimming with joy and yet I couldn’t shake a sense of loss. The truth is I came to see these river dolphins because I believe I am one of the last humans that ever will.

My exhilarating experience with the dolphins sharpened my sense that we must act decisively now to protect these most precious and endangered wild places. I thought through the implications. An effective global conservation strategy must identify the areas of outstanding diversity, such as the Mekong basin, and then create nature reserves large enough that the species within it can thrive. For river dolphins, this means hundreds of kilometres of river undisturbed by dams or fishing nets.

A global network of giant nature reserves doesn’t mean no development, or the acceptance of poverty, it simply means restricted development in areas where the last orangutans, pangolins and tarsiers are trying to make their home. A recent research paper, published in the journal Science, on the financial cost of meeting global conservation targets estimated this at $76bn (£45bn). To put this huge amount of money in context, in 2013 the USA spent more than $650bn (£385bn) on its military, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

What is needed is political effort to drive governments to protect the most special ecosystems. People who care need to join together to make the case that the world is richer when we share our planet with a diverse range of species. We must say clearly, and irrefutably, that we want to live in a world where river dolphins exist.

Only 85 Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins survive today. To help protect them add your name to this WWF petition.

Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar. He writes about adventure travel and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.