Monday, August 21, 2006

Job Vacancy for Researchers?

Just kidding, no jobs here I’m afraid. Apologises to any job seekers who googled there way here. Back button time for you and good luck with you endeavours. This meandering post is about the need for research on Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins.

A number of studies of Irrawaddy dolphins have been conducted in various countries in Southeast Asia and population estimates have been made for these sites. Here are a few stats to ponder.

Indonesia, Mahakam River, population estimated at 70 individuals based on a 2005 survey. For more info see YK-RASI

Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar, population estimated at 59 individuals based on a 2003 surevy. For more info see IUCN

Malampaya Sound, Palawan, Philippines, population estimated at 77 individuals based on a 2001. For more info see IUCN

Songkhla Lake, Thailand, population now extremely low, fewer than 50. For more info see IUCN

Mekong River, Cambodia, best estimate is 69 based on 2003 survey. For more info see IUCN

Yeah, I know, the above numbers make for pretty depressing reading. At each of the sites surveyed the population is between 50-80 individuals. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Southeast Asia’s Irrawaddy dolphins need all the help they can get. The first step in that process is to understand what is going on. To determine conservation priorities you need to conduct scientific research, estimate the population, examine threats, etc. This is already happening elsewhere in Southeast Asia with research being conducted in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines. Another project to is about to begin in Indonesia at Sembilang National Park.

So, how about Sarawak? What is the dolphin population in the Kuching area? Sorry folks, at present no one has a clue. Whilst one-off dolphin surveys have been conducted in Sarawak, these just show that there are dolphins out there. Whilst this is a welcome start, follow-up work is needed. Ideally a long term study, or for starters a preliminary study to estimate the dolphin population around Kuching and perhaps some outreach work with fishing communities so that a bycatch monitoring system can be set up in key villages.

So far the local scientific community, the wildlife agency and NGOs have largely ignored Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins. In many ways this is not surprising; after all there are enough issues to look at on land in Sarawak, let alone looking out to sea.

But looking out to sea can be rewarding, especially when there are dolphins on your doorstep.

The fact that relatively large numbers (25+) of Irrawaddy dolphins have been sighted in the Santubong area and groups are regularly sighted at Buntal, Muara Tebas and other rivers and estuaries close to Kuching, suggests that there could be a significant population near Kuching. I am no marine mammal expert - I just like dolphin watching - so I can not say how significant these sightings are.

But when I look at the population stats from elsewhere in the region, 59 in the Ayeyarwady, 77 in the Malampaya Sound, 70 in the Mahakam, etc., it gets me thinking. It makes me think how lucky I am to be able to see four or five groups of Irrawaddy dolphins in one day. It makes me wonder how many dolphins there are near Kuching. It makes me think that maybe, just maybe, the population around Kuching could be pretty significant. It also makes me think - where are the folks with binoculars and clipboards. It sure would be nice to see some researchers out in the bay observing the dolphins instead of just fishermen, tourists and the odd bridled tern.

In many ways the tourism industry has put Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins in the public eye. More and more people are aware that dolphins are found near Kuching and this increased awareness has to be a good thing. What is required now is an increase in scientific knowledge.

In 2000 the Sarawak Forest Department conducted a marine mammal survey along the coast of Sarawak in collaboration with the Borneo Marine Research Institute at the University Malaysia Sabah. The results of the 2000 survey were published in ‘Hornbill’, a Forest Department publication. This is what the researchers recommended.

“Irrawaddy dolphins and finless porpoises in coastal waters, estuaries and rivers of Sarawak should be given serious attention. The creation of reserves for the protection and management of dolphins is strongly encouraged…The impact of incidental catches of dolphins should be investigated…Further studies on the populations, behaviour and ecology of inshore cetaceans should be conducted.”

Some sound recommendations. Unfortunately, six years on, no in-depth ‘further studies’ have been conducted. No serious attention has been given. The impact of bycatch has not been investigated and no dolphin reserves have been set up.

If the Irrawaddy dolphin population around Kuching is significant, and without the data, that is a big if, then Sarawak has an opportunity to play an important role in the conservation of Irrawaddy dolphins in Southeast Asia. But for this to happen research needs to be conducted and more attention needs to be given to the dolphins on the doorstep of Kuching.


K.E. said...

I remember when I was living in Miri 20 years ago, it is so common to see dolphins (five-foot long) get stranded on the beach. They'd be 8-10 beached dolphins almost every second evening. Strange. These days, it is difficult to spot creatures.

Angelique said...

Hello Pesut,

I'm writing to say I'm concerned about these dolphins and am willing to help in terms of research and conserving their habitat. I am willing to help in any possible way...Please let me know what I can do...Am willing to come out. E-mail me at

BorneoExpress said...

Hi there,

I am compiling list of wildlife of Borneo and have link your blogspot to my site.

Anyway, keep up your great work.

your netneighbour.

see for growing list of our unique Borneo flora and fauna.

d0nut said...

hi Pesut,

This concern you have should be directed to the Department of Environment or the Dept of Fisheries. I am in awe that we have such great natural resources to us and it must be protected and figures should start crunching on how many we have, and how to protect them.

is there any chance that i can trot along on a watch trip in the near future?

roachz said...

Hi Pesut, I have just came across your site and I am impressed with the stuff that you have writtten about these dolphins! I am a Malaysian masters student in Japan and am intersted in doing research about them, though not in a zoologist kind of way, more to landscape ecology and the influence of land use changes to these littel creatures...Can u contact me by email It will be great to be able to talk to u in person.

Thanks and keep it up!

SNOWY said...

i was in sarawak(sematan,pueh milano bay,tanjung datu& the turtle islands area),in 1964 during the confrontation.I worked up and down this coastline in a gemini craft and i would like to mention just how prolific the dolphin population was.They followed our boats all the while,skimming alongside us and in front of the bow! Wonderful days,but we couldn't fully appreciate the beauty of it all,due to the nature of our duties at that time.Just hope this brief glimpse helps at all, good wishes to you.

sten said...


very nice compilation on these dolphins. I think the best start for this population to become known and protected is to make a scientific presentation at an international conference like the ECS (European Cetacean Society) or the SMM (Society for Marine Mammalogy). It is also possible to present something at the IWC (International Whaling Commission), to which Malaysia is not signatory.
To get to write up something some basic research would have to be carried out on distribution and abundance. This is usually done by carrying out line transects with a vessel, counting the sighting rate on a determined route, and taking pictures in order to carry out photo-identification. I guess it would take about 2 months of field work in order to get a clear image of your population. Do you have any logistical possibilities, I mean a small boat that could be used? Let me know if I can be of any help. The SMM conference was just held 2 months ago and the next one is in 2 years, the ECS conference is in a month but the deadline for submissions is over. I am attending the IWC meeting in June, so that would be an option, and/or the ECS next year in March. I am a marine mammal vet and carry out research on dolphins and whales in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain. I will be visiting Borneo in October-November. Let me know if I can be of any help. You can email me at
Best regards,


sten said...


very interesting post on the dolphins. I think the best way of getting this dolphins to be known and protected is to present a paper at an international conference like the IWC , ECS or SMM. These are all conferences about dolphins and whales. The best option right now would be to present something at the IWC meeting in June. But you would have to have some data for that. The data I am talking about would be general distribution and abundance estimates. The way to get the data would be conducting line transects and taking photo-ID pictures. Do you have any possibility of using a boat in the area? I am a marine mammal vet and carry out reserach on dolphins and whales in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain. I will be attending the IWC meeting, so could present something there. I will also be in Borneo next October-November, so let me know if I can be of any help. You can contact me on

Good luck,