The Riverguard Who Protects the Dolphins

Posted on October, 30 2014

An important part of the Cambodia’s natural heritage, the Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong River is regarded as a sacred animal by Cambodian people, and is an important source of income and jobs for communities involved in dolphin-watching ecotourism. About 20,000 national and international tourists visit the Mekong each year to catch a glimpse of these rare animals. Today, however, this animal faces danger of extinction. Only 85 individuals remain and swim a 190 km stretch of Cambodia’s Mekong River between Kratie and the border with Lao PDR.

Gillnets used by local people for fishing are a major threat to these dolphins listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. The Royal Government of Cambodia has taken significant steps to protect this species. In August 2012, the government issued a sub-decree that manages the dolphin protection zone and banned the use of gillnets within the animal habitat. Enforcement river guards were formed comprising of government staff and local villagers to reinforce this sub-decree as well as laws and relations related to fisheries and aquatic lives. The enforcement consists of carrying out patrols to monitor any illegal fishing activities and confiscate prohibited gears, and making arrests if necessary. The government established 16 outposts (11 in Kratie and 5 in Stung Treng) with a total of 67 river guards employed. WWF through funding support from the IUCN SOS Programme and BMZ provided equipment and skill training necessary for the effective operation of the enforcement work. Like any other park or protected are rangers, the work of river guard requires high level of commitment, ability to survive difficult conditions both weather and fields their activities are operated in.

To get closer to the work of riverguard, the Communications team of WWF-Cambodia travelled to one of outposts on the Mekong River to meet with Mr. Srey Sokkea, Chief of Kol Prambey Chrung outpost located in Sambo district, Kratie province. Dressed proudly in his river guard uniform, Mr. Sokkea welcomed the communications team with a big smile on his face. As soon as we were let inside of the wooden outpost, we realized that it was not just an outpost but it also serves as home to Mr. Sokkea and other five members of his family. On the floor, we saw different types of fishing gears – results of their confiscations. After nearly 10 years in the military and police, Mr. Sokkea quit government job to become a farmer in Sambo district. In 2011, this 45 year-old man joined the government’s dolphin enforcement unit and today leads a team of five. When asked with the following questions, Mr. Sokkea answers…

Why did you volunteer to become a river guard?
I volunteered to be a river guard because I think that working as a river guard is a good job. I want to help conserve and protect the dolphins and other species. There are a lot of illegal fishing activities so I think that if we don’t work to protect and conserve the natural resources, they will be gone forever. The next generation will never know what dolphins and the giant catfish look like.

How is your life as a river guard?
There are many challenges working on the river. Sometimes the weather, specifically storms, can make it difficult for us to conduct our work. But, this is my personal interest and I want my kids to see the dolphins in the future.

I also have a lot of good memories working as a river guard. One of the best memories was when we effectively communicated with river guards from another outpost in order to arrest a fisherman that was electro-fishing. We’ve arrested many cases and we’re happy about it.

Since you’ve been working as a river guard, how many gillnets have you and your team confiscated?
We have been successful in confiscating gillnets. When the river guards first started working we confiscated thousands of meters of gillnets, but now we rarely confiscate more than a couple hundred meters due to the very good cooperation from the river guards.

What are the challenges working as a river guard?
There are challenges with all work. Sometimes offenders know that using gillnets are illegal, but they still become angry and curse at us when we confiscate them. Other challenges include: old boat engines, challenges with operating the boat during the wet season because the water levels are high and avoiding rocks during the dry season, and lack of equipment including torches.

What are the importances of community’s involvement?
Some people understand our mission and they support us by reporting illegal fishing activities. They believe if the river guards did not exist the fish and dolphin populations will continue to decline. Fortunately, most people do not use gillnets because they know it is illegal, however, there is still a small fraction of people that use gillnets.

What appeal do you have for the government?
As one of the river guards, I would like to appeal to the government and NGOs to help  monitor illegal activities that happen further away from patrolling areas. I’d also like to ask them for assistance in educating community people on the importance of eliminating gillnet use in the important dolphin habitat areas of the river.
Mr. Sokkea dressed proudly in his river guard uniform and sitting in his outpost.
© Jialing Lim / WWF-Cambodia
Mr. Sokkea and another riverguard removing an illegal gillnet from the Mekong river.
© Tep Asnarith / WWF-Cambodia
The wooden Kol Prambey Chrung outpost surrounding by the Mekong river.
© Tep Asnarith / WWF-Cambodia
Mr. Sokkea’s Family sits in Kol Prambey Chrung outpost.
© Tep Asnarith / WWF-Cambodia