PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The number of critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins along a stretch of the Mekong River has increased for the first time in 20 years but the animals still face serious threats, Cambodia's government and a major conservation group said Monday.
A joint statement issued by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Cambodia's Fisheries Administration said a 2017 census pegged the population of the freshwater dolphins along a 190-kilometer (118-mile) stretch of river from Kratie in Cambodia to the Khone Falls in Laos at 92, a 15 percent increase over an estimate of 80 made in 2015.
"The Mekong dolphin is considered our country's living national treasure and the results of this census reflect our many years of continuous efforts to protect this species," said Eng Cheasan, the director-general of the Fisheries Administration. "We will continue our conservation efforts to rebuild its population by eliminating all threats to the survival of this species."
In addition to the Mekong, the dolphins can be found in only two other freshwater rivers: Myanmar's Irrawaddy and Indonesia's Mahakam, on the island of Borneo.
Despite the increase during the latest count, the number of dolphins in the Mekong is still less than half of the 200 counted during the first official census in 1997. Surveys are carried out every two to three years.
Seng Teak, the country director of WWF-Cambodia, warned at a news conference in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, that the dolphins still face many threats to their existence, including illegal fishing methods, increasing boat traffic and ongoing dam projects.
The biggest threat to the dolphins has been getting caught up in gillnets, massive nets held in place vertically through the use of floats and weights, that trap marine life in their netting.
Seng Teak said several thousand meters (yards) of illegal fishing net has been confiscated and dozens of fishermen arrested, some being released after being taught the error of their ways, and others sent to court.
The survey found encouraging signs for the dolphins' long-term survival: an improvement in the survival rate of dolphins into adulthood, an increase in the number of calves and a drop in overall deaths. Two dolphins died in 2017 compared with nine in 2015, while nine new calves brought the number of dolphins born in the past three years to 32.
"After years of hard work, we finally have reason to believe that these iconic dolphins can be protected against extinction — thanks to the combined efforts of the government, WWF, the tourism industry and local communities," said Seng Teak.