PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia's population of Irrawaddy dolphins could vanish within a decade unless strict enforcement is undertaken to protect the endangered species, a conservation official warned Wednesday.
Phai Somany, senior officer of the Cambodian Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project, raised the alarm after receiving news about the deaths of two baby dolphins.
Their demise brought to 14 the number that have died since the beginning of this year, including four this week, he said.
"This is a very sad news. We are declaring an emergency on this, asking all local authorities to cooperate in trying to reduce the mortality rate," Phai Somany said. "Without strengthening our conservation work, I dare to say that the dolphins will disappear from the Mekong River in the near future, in 10 years at the longest."
The two latest deaths followed those of two other calves — aged between 4 weeks and 2 months — that were discovered floating in the river on Monday.
The cause of their deaths was not immediately known, but officials have said environmental pollution and illegal fishing nets were probably behind the recent deaths of at least eight other Irrawaddy dolphins in Cambodian waters.
The World Wildlife Fund has also called the deaths a "serious situation" that threatens the future of the animals.
It was estimated earlier this month that only 80-100 Irrawaddy dolphins are left in the Mekong River, which runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The WWF said the remaining dolphins are restricted to a 120-mile stretch of the river between the Cambodia-Laos border and the Cambodian town of Kratie, upstream from the capital, Phnom Penh.
Sam Kim Lorn, chief fisheries officer in Kratie province, said the dolphin death toll this year has already surpassed last year's total of eight.
He said illegal fishing nets were the cause of most dolphin deaths and that authorities were conducting day-and-night patrols of the river to crack down on the problem.
River pollution and disease could also have been factors in the recent deaths, he said.
The WWF has no estimates of how many Irrawaddy dolphins are left in the world. The animals are also found in waters around the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and Australia.
Samples from some of Cambodia's dead dolphins have been sent for testing in Canada to try to determine the exact causes of their deaths, but the results are not yet available, Phai Somany said.