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The combined effect of humans fishing, building dams and warming the planet by burning fossil fuels and breeding farm animals, has killed the last known freshwater dolphin in North-eastern Cambodia. His body was found entangled in a fishing net, after all his relatives had already died because of climate change and the river waters made shallow by the construction of upstream dams, both of which decrease water flow and the number of other aquatic species that these dolphins eat. 

The Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), also known as Mekong River dolphin, is classified as an endangered species by IUCN. They used to live all over the Mekong River, the largest in Southeast Asia, in North-eastern Cambodia. It is a small dark grey dolphin with a paler underside, one of only three cetacean species that can live in both fresh and marine waters. The last known member of this species in the north-eastern part of the river, a 25-year-old male, was found dead on 15th February 2022 on a riverbank in Stung Treng province near the border with Laos.

In 1997, there were still 200 Irrawaddy dolphins in the whole of Cambodia, but then in 2020, the population went down to 89. Other groups of these dolphins still live further downstream in Cambodia and two other freshwater rivers, Myanmar’s Irrawaddy and Indonesia’s Mahakam on the island of Borneo.  Lan Mercado, the Asia-Pacific director of the World Wildlife Fund, said to the Washington Post: “The remaining population of ‘critically endangered’ river dolphins in the Cambodia section of the Mekong is now stable, whilst still facing serious challenges… this latest river dolphin death highlights how vulnerable these and other species remain.”  Although the news of this tragic loss is often contextualised around climate change, most mainstream media outlets seem to ignore that the fishing industry has been the direct culprit in this particular death. We tend to blame the demise of cetaceans around the world on whaling, but we forget how fishing, in addition to causing harm to trillions of fishes, also threatens cetaceans, like in this case.