Learn About the Critically Endangered Irrawaddy “Smiling” Dolphins in Laos

The Irrawaddy dolphin, also known as the “smiling dolphin,” is a critically endangered species that can only be found in a few places worldwide, including the Mekong River in Laos. Because of their friendly appearance and playful nature, these dolphins are popular with locals and tourists. Unfortunately, their population is threatened by various human activities, such as pollution, overfishing, and dam construction. In this article, we’ll look at the Irrawaddy dolphins of Laos, their biology and behavior, their threats, and the conservation efforts underway to protect them.

Biology and Behavior


The Irrawaddy dolphin is an oceanic dolphin closely related to the killer whale but looks more like a beluga. At full maturity, they are medium-sized dolphins weighing 90 to 200 kg (200 to 440 lb) and measuring 2.3 m (7.5 ft). They have a distinct bulbous forehead, a “melon,” which contains a complex system of fat and oil used for echolocation. Irrawaddy dolphins are known for being friendly and curious, and they are frequently seen swimming alongside boats and interacting with humans.

Irrawaddy dolphins live in various habitats, including rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters. They are primarily found in Laos along the Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s longest river and one of the most biodiverse rivers on the planet. The Mekong River is home to a diverse range of fish and other aquatic life, with dolphins primarily feeding on fish and crustaceans.

Threats that Irrawaddy Dolphins Face

Irrawaddy dolphins are critically endangered species and face several threats to their survival. These include pollution, overfishing, and dam construction.



Pollution is one of the most severe threats, and it is caused by various human activities, including industrial development, agriculture, and sewage disposal. The Mekong River is heavily polluted with heavy metals and chemical pollutants, which can harm dolphins and their food sources.



Another major threat to the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos is overfishing. The Mekong River is heavily fished, and many fish species on which dolphins rely for food are depleting. This not only has an impact on the dolphins’ food supply but also on the entire ecosystem.

Construction of Dams


Dam construction on the Mekong River is another major threat to the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos. Dams can alter the river’s flow, causing changes in water levels and flow patterns that can harm dolphins and their habitats. Dams also create barriers that make it difficult for dolphins to move up and down the river, leading to genetic isolation and inbreeding.

Conservation Efforts in Laos

The close proximity of Irrawaddy dolphins to human settlements makes conservation efforts more difficult. These dolphins are primarily threatened by getting caught in fishing gear and destroying their habitats. Efforts to preserve their environment are being made by individuals and organizations both globally and within the country.

Restriction of Explosive Fishing and Gillnet Use

The Mekong River’s Irrawaddy dolphin population faces numerous threats. Historically, many of these dolphins were slaughtered for their oil in the 1970s. Soon after, fishing techniques involving explosives and gillnets became common. The Irrawaddy dolphin is currently protected in Cambodia and the Democratic Republic of Laos. Explosive fishing and gillnets are now prohibited in many dolphin areas to conserve the species.

Monitoring and Research

To ensure the survival of the Irrawaddy dolphin in Laos, monitoring and research are essential. The health of the dolphin population can be gauged, and changes in population trends can be detected through regular monitoring. Counts, patterns of where the dolphins are located, and general health are all things that can be tracked in this way. Learning more about the dolphins’ biology and behavior can also aid conservation efforts by pointing researchers toward critical habitats and food sources that should be safeguarded.

Lao Community Fisheries and Dolphin Protection Project

Canadian conservationist Ian Baird founded the Lao Community Fisheries and Dolphin Protection Project to research Irrawaddy dolphins in the Laotian Mekong. The program compensates fishermen for losing broken nets while attempting to liberate trapped dolphins. After most of the dolphin population was confirmed to have been killed or relocated to Laos’ southern border, the project expanded to include Cambodia.

Si Phan Don Wetlands Project

The Si Phan Don Wetlands Project is a successful conservation program encouraging river towns to establish conservation zones and fishing regulations. Several threatened or endangered species, such as the Irrawaddy dolphin, are found in the Si Phan Don (or “Four Thousand Islands”) region of the Mekong River in Laos. The project’s goal is to safeguard the biodiversity of the Si Phan Don region by collaborating with local communities to develop conservation zones and fishing regulations. One example is working with local fishermen to promote sustainable fishing practices that do not affect dolphins or their food sources.

International Cooperation

International cooperation is also essential to Irrawaddy dolphin conservation efforts in Laos. The Mekong River is shared by multiple countries, including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, and conservation efforts must consider the effects of these other countries’ actions.

For example, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is a regional institution that encourages collaboration on the Mekong River’s sustainable use. The MRC collaborates with Mekong River countries to coordinate conservation efforts and manage shared resources such as Irrawaddy dolphins.

Economic Value of Irrawaddy Dolphins


Irrawaddy dolphins have significant economic value for the Laotian people. One of the primary ways in which the presence of dolphins benefits local populations is through ecotourism. Tourists worldwide visit the Mekong River to observe the Irrawaddy dolphins, providing much-needed revenue to the local residents. Ecotourism can create jobs for boat operators, guides, and other service providers and contribute to local communities overall economic growth.

However, it is crucial to stress that the economic benefits of ecotourism will only be achieved if dolphins and their habitats are well-protected and safeguarded. The ecotourism sector will suffer if dolphin populations drop or their habitats are destroyed.

Challenges to Conservation

Protecting the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos remains difficult despite continued conservation efforts. One of the most serious issues is the ineffective enforcement of conservation laws and regulations. Pollution, overfishing, and habitat degradation remain serious issues, and law and regulation enforcement is frequently lax or non-existent.

Another issue is the need for more funds for conservation activities. Many conservation organizations and government agencies need more funding, making implementing effective conservation measures difficult.

Another major challenge is climate change, which can affect dolphins and their habitats. For example, changes in water levels and flow patterns can endanger dolphins and their habitats.

The Irrawaddy dolphins of Laos are a well-known and iconic species facing several dangers to their survival. However, many conservation measures are underway to safeguard these dolphins, including pollution reduction, habitat protection, and community education. Monitoring and research, as well as international cooperation, are equally critical to the species’ survival. It is possible to preserve the future of this unique and endangered species by continuing to protect Irrawaddy dolphins and their habitats.