The sight of two dolphins twisting playfully in the murky waters of the Mekong river elicits barely-stifled squeals of delight from a boatload of eco-tourists.
But a short distance upstream, river guard Pech Sokhan sighs as he holds up two large, tangled gill nets recently pulled from the river — evidence old habits die hard despite a ban on the practice that ensnares many dolphins.
“We have to keep educating people every day,” said Pech, one of 77 unarmed guards who patrol the Cambodian stretch of the Mekong river on the lookout for activities that could harm the dolphins.
Entanglement in gill nets — vertical mesh nets left in the water for long periods — is the main cause of death in adult Mekong dolphins, according to experts, who believe the grey mammals with distinctive blunt beaks are in imminent danger of extinction.
Estimates for the number of remaining adult Mekong river freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins range from 85 up to 180.
Although there are no comprehensive studies, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classes the species as critically endangered.
The dwindling population faces numerous challenges including unexplained high rates of calf mortality, as well as disease, inbreeding and habitat loss.
But “gill nets are the biggest of these threats,” said WWF conservationist Gordon Congdon.