Once upon a time, the Mekong River from Laos to Vietnam was teaming with thousands of freshwater dolphins, before more than thirty years of warfare and over-fishing nearly killed them off. But a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund found just 71 left, living in a short stretch of river from northern Cambodia to southern Laos. An effort to protect the endangered species by way of an eco-tourism project was begun several years ago, but as Rory Byrne reports for VOA from Kratie, Cambodia, is it too little, too late?
This small boat chugging up the Mekong River in Cambodia represents one of the last hopes for saving the endangered Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphin. The boat is carrying so-called "voluntourists" to the isolated fishing village of Sambor in northern Cambodia, which is close to an important breeding ground for some of the last remaining Mekong freshwater dolphins.
The foreign tourists will live and work in the impoverished village on the banks of the river in an effort to help protect the dolphin's natural habitat, while at the same time helping to improve the lives of some of the world's poorest people.
Or Channy is Executive Director of the Cambodia Rural Development Team (CRDT), in Kratie, Cambodia.
"We are developing agriculture in the area, improving the health care system and digging wells and toilets. But most importantly we are trying to save the dolphins by providing local fishermen with an alternative way to earn a living through tourism," he said.
Tourists pay about $60 for their three day stay in the village most of which goes directly into the pockets of local people.
In a country where almost almost half the people earn about a dollar a day, villagers here can earn $3 per tourist per night for sleeps overs, plus $2 for every meal.
In return for earning an income from tourism, the villagers work to conserve the Irrawaddy dolphin's natural habitat. They have constructed fish farms in the village to help conserve the dolphin's dwindling food supply. Fishing with nets and explosives in the river has been banned while at the same time villagers are being encouraged to view the dolphins as an important natural asset that can help attract growing numbers of tourists.
In the past, people cared little for the mammals, says local historian Sok Sim:
"In the early 1970's there was a lot of bombing in this area and many dolphins were killed. Others died later at the hands of the local people who considered them to be useless fish because they could not eat them. They just shot them for fun."
While staying in the village, the tourists help to develop the local economy by working on development projects such as digging toilets or planting rice to help alleviate the villager's over-reliance on fishing.
When the sun gets too hot for outdoor work, tourists can teach the local children some words of English. Local people say they are delighted with the scheme. Srey Bern is the President of the local Development Committee:
"There are a lot of benefits to having foreigners stay in our village. In the first place we can learn a lot from them - they give us new ideas and we can learn about their culture. The extra money helps a lot but for me it is not the most important thing," he said.
Grace Byrnes, a tourist from Melbourne Australia, says the experience is invaluable for everyone.
"It's a really great experience and something that you're not going to do everyday. You can see that any type of help that you offer is really appreciated and it's something that I'd definitely recommend for anyone who wants to come over to Cambodia," said Byrnes.
Despite an initial spike in dolphin numbers reported in the months after the scheme was introduced, it remains unclear whether it will have any lasting impact in saving the remaining dolphins.
Scientists say a deadly new mystery disease seems to be killing off the dolphin's babies which is threatening to undo much of the projects good work.
There are real fears that the disease, which some blame on chemicals from gold-mining in the area, could soon wipe out the species completely.
But whether the dolphins can be saved or not, the conservation project is at least helping to improve the lives of some of the world's poorest people while at the same time offering tourists, and local people, a glimpse at completely different way of life.