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This is the story of Dolphins in River Ayeyarwady; a rare species in the world.

"Labine! Labine! A shout erupted from the starboard quadrant of the boat M.V Sein Yadarna Thein and all eyes turned towards the direction of the pointing finger. Suddenly a gray shape broke the surface and a spray shot up. A dolphin is coming up for air.

This was an expedition to document the interactive fishing techniques between the Ayeyarwady dolphins known to the international scientific community as Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) and the local fishers of the Ayeyarwady River organized jointly by a prominent marine biologist and a tour operator from the U.S in collaboration with Swift winds Travels & Tours Co., Ltd. a local tour company. Labine is the Myanmar word for dolphins.

Ayeyarwady dolphins had been in the Ayeyarwady River for a long time but little systematic documentation or researches exist. The type specimens were first taken to England in the 1870s by a British naturalist Mr.Anderson and classified as Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) dolphins. But even before that, probable mention of these mammals were found in Chinese texts of 1st century A.D, contemporary with the Pyu civilization in Myanmar, about the people living along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River and that there were River Pigs in the river. This could be the dolphin as the flesh resembles pork.

The expedition was here to study the distribution ranges and the interactive fishing method between the dolphins and the local fishers. It comprised 8 nature lovers plus Mr. Lawrence Hobbs, a tour leader and Mr.Brian Smith, marine biologist from the IUCN and Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society from U.K. The group was on the boat, "M.V Sein Yadana Thein", near Singu on the Ayeyarwady River. The members had been briefed on their duties on the boat. The roof of the boat was designated as a lookout platform and a duty roster drawn up. Each member of the expedition was to stand look out duty for dolphins. Sectors were also drawn up; one lookout at the bow, two on either side and one at the stern. Duty time was from 0700hrs to 1600hrs and the lookout were to change duty station every 15 minutes. So everybody has to do lookout duty for 1 hour and then rest and start all over again. All sightings were carefully recorded. Time of sighting, location (whether in the lee of a sandbar or in the fast flowing channel), condition of the sky (overcast or clear), condition of the river (choppy or calm) the conditions of the channels (meandering or wide), the current (slow or fast), G.P.S position etc were all entered in a log book. Apart from that the expedition members also participated in the interactive fishing technique with the accompanying fishers.

The fishers tapped on the side of their canoes with a wooden mallet. As the dolphins can locate sound by eco-location they will be attracted to this tapping. But first they must be convinced that the fishers are not enemies but requesting their help to catch fish!
To do this, the fishers swish their oars in the water, first clockwise, then anti-clockwise for some time and also continued to tap. Most of the time this will convince the dolphins but there are times when they cannot be persuaded. We were nearing Singu when the labine shot came. "Myint Kyaw Oo, do you see the fluke signaling us?" asked his father Ko Than Tun to his young son learning the trade. We had taken this father-son team with us to document on video how this interactive fishing is done. Ko Than Tun and fishermen from this village fish with the help of the dolphins, the trick passed down from father to son for generations. Myint Kyaw Oo still has a lot to learn about this unique fishing method from his father.

According to the fishers they can get a whole boatload of fish with the dolphins??? assistance but if they do it without this help they get only two-three small fish for the whole day???s work. There were two dolphins swimming around a school of fish and getting them together in a small space. The guests climbed into the canoes to follow the dolphins, better to participate and observe how the local fishers interact with the dolphins to catch the fish. The dolphins showed Myint Kyaw Oo which way to turn with their flukes and he in turn signals his father with his hands from the bow of the canoe to follow the dolphins. Finally the fluke slapped the surface of the water and Myint Kyaw Oo is ready. He cast the net exactly to the spot indicated by the dolphins and then slowly pulled it in. "Father, that???s Thar gyi ma and her son who helped us. Thanks to them we have a big catch today," Myint Kyaw Oo said to his father. All the dolphins living on this stretch of water had been given names by the fishermen. Thar gyi ma a mother with a calf, Bay gya ma means a dolphin with stripes on the sides etc.

This interactive fishing between the fishers of the Ayeyarwady River and the dolphins was documented both on video and still cameras by the tourists who had accompanied the father-son fishing team on their canoe. Marvelous! Extraordinary! were some of the exclamations from the accompanying crowd. The boat returned to Hinthagon village where the day???s catch was distributed free to all the villagers, compliments of the research expedition members, which made the whole village happy. Hinthagon village is a typical Myanmar village. The villagers earn their living by either fishing or as cultivators. Their easiest means of transportation is by river, where there is a daily shuttle to Mandalay.

The village monk had also prepared sleeping quarters at his monastery. It was an old monastery and the monk told the tourists that it was donated to the then village monk by a rich merchant who was a native of the village and made his fortune in Mandalay before the British annexation in 1886. He also showed some antique Buddha statues placed in the prayer hall and pointed out; "See, this statue is lacquer". Indeed this statue was woven with bamboo strips which were then lacquered and gilded with gold leaf. The guests walked around the village and made many friends. Every household wanted them to visit their house and there was always a teapot with steaming green tea and a dish of pickled tea leaves ready.

Although there are mechanical clocks in the village time here is governed by nature. The village roosters are their time-keepers. Villagers plan their days and nights based on the height of the sun. For Instance, htan ta phya means when "the sun is about the height of the palm tree" which is about 8.00/9.00 a.m.

"When the monks come back from their daily rounds" (soon gan pyan chein) which is 10.00/11.00 a.m. Even when one ask how long it will take to do a job, they will answer" as long as it takes to chew a quid of betel" or "to cook a pot of rice."

That night the it seemed all the children had been given permission to play past their bedtime, "the time for youngsters to go to bed" (thu nge ait chein) which is 8.00/9.00 p.m, to see real "palefaces". The guests were exhausted by the time the moon rose in the eastern sky and the village roosters called out the time for "the elders??? sleeping time"( thet gyi gaung cha.)

When the roosters next sounded the midnight call, "the time when the village lads come home" maung yin pyan chein, all were already fast asleep. They slept past the roosters??? lin gyet tun than 1 cries at dawn next morning before all were ready to return to Mandalay.

Fishing with dolphins in the Ayeyarwady River of Myanmar

It was a precious moment to witness the idea of living wildlife being critical to the health and sustainability of humans so beautifully demonstrated in the Ayeyarwady River of Myanmar. With a flick of its half submerged flukes, an Irrawaddy dolphin gave the final push to herding a school of fish into a concentrated mass against the shore. The motion was also the signal for Ko Than Hlun to throw his net. After it hit the water, several dolphins surfaced in a fast rush around the outside, appearing to pounce on fish attempting to escape the sinking net. The fisherman then pulled up the net. It appeared like a Christmas tree packed with silver ornaments of fish. Meanwhile, the dolphins moved to the centre of the area where they now appeared to be feeding on fish that had escaped entanglement in the net but were momentarily stuck in the mud. The fishermen pulled the fish from their net with Cheshire cat grins while the dolphins swam offshore, contentedly rolling and rubbing in social play.

When all the fish had been removed, Myint Kyaw Oo, began tapping the side of the canoe with a conical wooden pin in decrescendo drum roll beats. The dolphins came closer and the fishermen signaled that they were ready to throw their net. They slapped the water with the flat end of their paddle, dangled the lead weights of the net on the deck of their boat, and voiced a guttural sound in their throats that sounded like a turkey in distress. Two of the dolphins then broke off from the others and began swimming in decreasing semi-circles around the bow of the boat. Fish splashes broke the surface as the dolphins herded the fish closer to the shore. The other dolphins lingered on the outside, according to the fishermen as "rear guards" in case the fish got away from the other animals working close to the boat. In this manner, I watched a generations-old fishing cooperative practiced for the benefit of dolphins and humans. It was mutualism at its most basic level-two species helping each other obtain food.

I had met the father-son fishing team of Ko Than Hlun and Myint Kyaw Oo while conducting a survey for Irrawaddy dolphins in the Ayeyarwady River above Mandalay. I was immediately intrigued with their tales of fishing with dolphins. They revered the dolphins as the benevolent kings of the river but also loved them because "they dance like children." They knew the animals well and claimed to be able to identify individuals by distinctive features of their appearance or behaviour. They told of a dolphin, now dead, named "Jet Ma," ('fast female') that was legendary in her abilities at herding fish. The fishermen said that the adult females take the lead in the fishing activity and are the only ones that work close to the boat. They recognize females by their narrow tailstock and the presence of calves. Later on we fished with "Goat Htit Ma" or "thick-necked female." The fishermen said that this dolphin was one of the best of her generation at herding fish. Currently, though, her yearling calf kept trying to help with the herding but succeeded only in scattering the fish. We also watched "Htaung Yan Ma" or "female that shakes her tail" live up to her name by waving her flukes high in the air, looking as if she was standing on her head.

I felt privileged to accompany Ko Than Hlun and Myant Kyaw Oo while they fished with the dolphins but also tried to remain aware that what was a fascinating phenomenon to me - the cooperation between humans and dolphins - was the source of life-giving sustenance for them. Unfortunately their livelihood and the dolphins are threatened by the increasing use of gillnets. Fishermen told us that nylon gillnets were rare in the Ayeyarwady River until several years ago when import restrictions were lifted and cheap factory-made nets became available. The fishermen explained that the use of gillnets is increasing because the nets are inexpensive; require little skill to use, and are highly profitable because they catch all sizes of fish. We also observed gold mining dredges that use mercury for purifying the ore. Mercury is extremely toxic. When introduced into rivers it bio-accumulates and becomes magnified as it moves higher up the food chain - reaching the highest level in fish-eating humans and dolphins. Mercury is also passed through the placenta and mother's milk, thereby giving the young a dangerous "headstart" on their own accumulation.

To raise awareness about the threats posed to the dolphins and the human/dolphin fishing cooperative, WDCS recently funded the production of educational posters. The posters illustrated the fishing technique with colourful artwork and contained text in Myanmar language on what local people could do to help conserve dolphins. The posters were distributed during talks given at local schools and monasteries located along the banks of the Ayeyarwady as part of an ecotourism programme sponsored by Inland Whale. The idea of the programme was to use the volunteer efforts and financial support of international participants to accomplish research and awareness-raising goals. The people we met in Myanmar were genuinely interested in our work. Farmers along the banks were surprised to learn of the vital role dolphins play in the livelihood of their fishermen neighbours. Buddhist monks gently admonished members of the fishing community not to harm their dolphin friends, and the throw-net fishermen took pride in their relationship with the dolphins that had touched the hearts of international researchers and fellow villagers alike.


The use of nylon gillnets is one of the most serious threats to cetaceans worldwide. These nets are non-selective and result in the accidental entanglement of dolphins and over-exploitation of their prey. Prior to the introduction of synthetic materials, gill nets were made from natural fibres. These nets were thick enough to be detected by echolocation and weak enough so that an entangled dolphin could break free. The heavy weight of natural materials also prevented small mesh sizes that catch all size of fish. This left sufficient breeding stock to sustain productive fisheries. In contrast, nylon nets are strong enough to capture dolphins and can be woven with such a small mesh that even small 'fingerlings' are caught. Traditional fishing methods, such as throw-nets and single hook and lines, are safe for dolphins and selective in the fish species and size of fish they catch. Establishing gill-net free zones and encouraging fishermen to use traditional methods can help ensure the survival of dolphins and sustainable fisheries for local people.

Author: Brian Smith

WDCS is the global voice for the protection of whales, dolphins and their environment.

Myanmar's river dolphins declining, face becoming endangered: report
Agence France Presse - 05 Jan 03

Yangon - The number of dolphins living in Myanmar's Irrawaddy river has declined in recent years and the animals are now at risk of becoming an endangered species, according to a survey reported by the Myanmar Times.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found just 37 dolphins in a 550 kilometre (340 mile) stretch of the river between Bhamo in northern Kachin state and Mingun near the ancient city of Mandalay, compared to 59 animals in a 1998 survey.
WCS zoologist Brian Smith told the semi-official weekly newspaper published Monday that it was surprising the survey conducted in November and December had found no evidence of Irrawaddy dolphins downstream from Mingun. "We had assumed we would find them between Mingun and Bogalay (about 120 kilometres or 75 miles southwest of the capital Yangon in the Irrawaddy delta)," he said.

"The population of the dolphins is isolated to a limited area," he said, adding that the survey indicated the mammals were at risk of becoming an endangered species in Myanmar.

Smith said the main threat to the dolphins were nets, the use of electrical charges to catch fish and mercury run-off from gold mines along the river. The zoologist said Irrawaddy dolphins were distinctive because they enjoyed a cooperative relationship with fishermen, indicating to them where fish could be caught in abundance.

The only other country where such a relationship existed between men and freshwater dolphins was in Brazil, he said.

Wildlife Conservation Team Begins Survey of Irrawaddy Dolphins in Myanmar, Report Says
December 13, 2004 - By Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar - A wildlife team led by a U.S. expert has begun an annual survey of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in Myanmar's main river, a count that last year showed just 50 of the animals still living there, a newspaper reported Sunday.
The rare dolphins -- distinguished by their blunt heads and lack of a distinctive beak -- are named after Myanmar's Irrawaddy River. They are also found in rivers and coastal areas in other parts of Southeast Asia as well as in India and northern Australia.
The 10-member team of specialists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and Myanmar's Fisheries and Forest Department began the three-week survey of the dolphins on Dec. 4 along the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River between Sagaing and Bhamo, The Myanmar Times Journal reported.
It is the third annual survey aimed at confirming the dolphin's population, the weekly said, quoted Tint Tun, a member of the team and a marine biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

A survey conducted in December last year estimated the dolphin population at about 50.

The team, led by Brian Smith, a conservation zoologist with the wildlife group, will also try to educate fishermen living along the river about protecting the animals.
Wild Irrawaddy dolphins, known scientifically as Orcaella brevirostris, are critically endangered, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Traders who sell them to aquariums, particularly in Asia, which seek them for their unusual appearance and ability to perform tricks, often catch them.
Tint Tun said Myanmar fishermen and villagers do not kill or trade the dolphins, but that more protection is needed because the mammals face accidental deaths due to entanglement in fishing nets.

The Fisheries Department plans to establish a protection zone along the river by mid-2005, he said.

An international conference of signatories to the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species held in Bangkok in October agreed to prohibit trade of the Irrawaddy dolphin to protect surviving populations.
Source: Associated Press

Myanmar establishes dolphin protection zone

(Comtex Environment Via Thomson Dialog Newsedge) YANGON, Jan 8, 2006 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- Myanmar has established a protection zone for rare dolphins in the upper reaches of the Ayeyawaddy River, aimed at reducing the extinction of the Ayeyawaddy dolphins and preserving the culture of cooperative fishing, a local weekly reported Sunday.

The 72-kilometer-long protected area is designated between the Kyaukmyaung and Mingun in the north of the second largest city of Mandalay, the Fisheries Department was quoted by the Myanmar Times As saying.

The authorities attributed the establishment of the zone to the killing of 25 percent of the dolphins in the area last year either accidentally or intentionally.

Cooperation among the authorities, fishermen and villagers is also being urged for effective dolphin protection with education campaign to continue as a follow up of last year's.

Marine biologists warned that the accidental deaths from entanglement in fishing nets and illegal electric fishing are the main menace to the dolphins.

Meanwhile, Myanmar has been cooperating with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society on Ayeyawaddy dolphin conservation projects, which also cover annual dolphin population surveys.

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