The fishermen along the Irrawaddy know each and every dolphin in the river by name.
With a rhythmic tapping of wooden sticks on the sides of their boats they let the dolphins know they are about to begin a day’s work.
The dolphins round up the fish and signal to the fishermen where the net should be cast. As a reward, they get a cut for themselves.
But after years of working side by side with the fishermen, the dolphins are suddenly shying away.
“In the past we could rely on the dolphins to make a living”, said San Lwin, who makes a living by fishing in the Irrawaddy river.
“Without their assistance we won’t be able to survive.”
The explanation is ‘electrofishing’, which provides high yields for individual fishers at the expense of the natural environment.
An electric current is passed through the water, which attracts and then stuns the nearby fish.
The method poses a grave threat to the Irrawaddy Dolphins, which often drown when they are exposed to the electric current. Since the dolphins fear the electric currents, they now avoid all human contact.
“They think we are the same people who use electric shocks and they become afraid. I would like to continue making a living from the river, so we should put a stop to this electrofishing,” said San Lwin.
The Myanmar Tourist Guides Association believes tourism may offer some hope. By partnering up with conservation groups and traditional fishermen, they hope to generate awareness of the fragile state of the Irrawaddy ecology.
The head of the organisation, Win Zaw Oo, said the natural environment was under threat.
“I have been living along the Irrawaddy for a long time, and what I notice most is the change to the forest. In the past these forests were big enough for rhinos to live there. Now I can’t even see the forest.”
The practice of ‘electrofishing’ is known to have contributed to the extinction of the Yangtzee River Dolphin. No one can say for sure whether the Irrawaddy Dolphins will meet a similar fate as they try to survive in a habitat scarred by electrofishing, gold mining and dam building.