- Community engagement should underpin every aspect of best practice, including research and monitoring, addressing threats, and conservation planning.
- Members of riverine communities can be directly involved in research and conservation as stakeholders who contribute to local conservation management plans; educators who raise awareness in their communities; rangers who help to patrol and enforce regulations; data collectors who monitor dolphin distribution and/or river water quality; and emergency responders who try to rescue dolphins in distress.
- Riverine communities have valuable traditional knowledge and skills that can contribute to river dolphin conservation.
- Increasing knowledge and awareness can help communities located in or near river dolphin habitats to more fully understand why dolphins are important to river health and ecosystem balance, and how human activities can either increase or reduce threats to dolphin populations.
- With support, communities can embrace alternative livelihoods to replace practices that may have negative impacts on river dolphins and their habitats. This can include shifts from fishing with gillnets to sustainable aquaculture, and training to develop ecotourism products
Why is community engagement important for river dolphin conservation?
The livelihoods and food security of communities who rely on the rivers is closely bound up with the well-being of dolphin populations. Both need healthy rivers and healthy fish stocks to thrive. Imposed regulations can ban harmful activities or mandate good practices, but these measures will only be effective and have lasting impact if the communities who share the dolphins’ habitat and resources are engaged as full conservation partners, and are informed, motivated and empowered to help implement them. An increasing number of studies are demonstrating that when community members are involved in designing and implementing conservation measures, the outcomes are better for the species and landscapes under their protection1, 2 Without community engagement, the effectiveness of measures that are perceived to have a negative impact on income or livelihoods is likely to be limited or short-lived. By contrast, if communities have a common understanding of how their actions impact dolphins, if they develop economically viable alternatives to harmful practices, and if they are involved in the implementation and enforcement of measures they help to develop, they can play a leading role in river dolphin conservation.
Strategies to ensure effective community engagement in dolphin conservation can be grouped into three main categories: 1) increasing knowledge and awareness, 2) support for alternative livelihoods, and 3) direct involvement in conservation.
The first step towards engaging local communities in conservation efforts is to highlight: a) the strong cultural and/or religious significance of river dolphins; b) that while dolphins may seem to be locally abundant, they are globally endangered; c) that dolphins play an important role as indicators of river health and ecosystem balance; d) that human activities, like fishing, agriculture and shipping, present a threat to river dolphins; and e) that everyone has a role to play in reducing these threats. There are a number of effective strategies for getting these messages across, including:
- Traditional forms of education, including lesson plans for children and schools, or television documentaries;
- Mobile outreach activities that take educational resources to local communities (see this example of outreach in Bangladesh3) and engage communities in presentations and discussions about river dolphin conservation;
- Games, mobile phone apps and videos that help school children and fishers learn about river dolphins and their conservation needs, as well as regulations that are in place to prevent harmful fishing practices (see for example this computer game developed to teach children about Amazon river dolphin conservation, this video from WCS Bangladesh or this video by WWF Pakistan);
- The development of education centres, ‘water schools’, or ‘green schools’ in core river dolphin habitat where visitors can learn about dolphins, riverine ecosystems, and threats; and
- Social media campaigns to raise awareness on a broader scale, so that even citizens living far from riverine habitats can appreciate river dolphins and understand what is needed to protect them. When the general public becomes more aware, there is likely to be more support for publicly funded conservation measures. For example, this approach was used to build support for Yangtze finless porpoise conservation in China by involving a well-known Chinese popstar, Jane Zhang, along with billboards and videos displayed in airports and on major highways.
Although gillnet fishing poses a serious threat to river dolphins, it is unreasonable to expect fishers to stop engaging in potentially harmful practices if they do not have viable alternatives for securing food or income. So if a particular activity, such as electrofishing or the use of gillnets, is to be banned or discouraged, communities must be offered the training, support and, if necessary, materials or initial financing, to change their fishing practices or adopt new livelihoods altogether. A number of initiatives have proven effective in river basins around the world, including:
- A shift to sustainable aquaculture: For example, fishers living in core Irrawaddy dolphin habitat on the Mahakam River in Indonesia were offered micro-financing, the loan of fish cages, bait, training, and a starter population of (indigenous) fish sprat to give up gillnet fishing and begin their own aquaculture businesses. Under the scheme, fishers earned enough to buy their own cages and pass one on to the next beneficiary of the project, thus reducing the number of gillnets in Irrawaddy dolphin habitat.
- A shift to ecotourism: Community-based ecotourism involving river dolphin watching has become a significant source of income in a protected area of the Mekong River in Cambodia, as well as for riverine communities in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, generating as much as US$6 million per year in the Colombian Amazon alone4. In the latter case, fishers are trained to use their boats to take tourists on trips to spot dolphins, while additional income is generated for their communities through the provision of ancillary tourism facilities, including accommodation, restaurants, and the sale of local handicrafts. To ensure that dolphin watching activities do not have a negative impact, local guides are trained, and tourist guidelines have been produced, by Fundación Omacha5.
- Production and marketing of local handicrafts: NGOs or governments can help to provide initial materials and financing, as well as markets for handicraft products, such as traditionally woven mats or baskets (along the Indus), or carved wooden dolphin figures and innovative products made out of recycled materials (along the Mahakam).
- Payment for environmental services: Community members can be trained to earn a living by providing environmental services, such as replanting natural vegetation (e.g. grasses or forest trees) to stabilize river banks and filter agricultural run-off. This was the focus of China’s Grain to Green Programme, which was implemented in the Yangtze and Yellow river basins, with demonstrable benefits for both communities and river health6.
Community members can also be directly involved in research and conservation efforts, including:
- Stakeholder meetings to involve riverine communities in the process of conservation planning, including identifying conservation gaps and actions to address them. This approach was used in Nepal to generate recommendations for improved conservation of Ganges river dolphins.
- Assistance with monitoring and enforcement of community protected areas and/or fisheries’ regulations. This has been extremely effective in reducing the mortality of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River in Cambodia, where river guards were trained and supported to help to enforce fisheries exclusion zones7.
- Acting as educators and data collectors to help gather data on river water quality, assist with rescues of stranded dolphins, monitor dolphins and waterfowl species, and educate riverine communities about ways to maintain river health. At least three community-led initiatives in India are supporting river dolphins and management of their habitat. These initiatives include the Ganga Prahari: Guardians of the River programme, WWF’s River Health Assessment programme, and the WWF Ganges/Ramganga Mitras (Friends of the River) programme.
- Sustainable development reserves can ensure that communities situated within protected areas play a key role in resource management and contribute to effective surveillance and monitoring, while tourism and employment help to alleviate poverty. The Mamiraua Reserve in the Brazilian state of Amazonas provides an excellent example where riverside communities have managed the Uacari Lodge, which has contributed to their income over the last 20 years as well as improving awareness of Amazon river dolphins and tucuxis. Another example of successful community involvement relates to sustainable resource management, such as the pirarucu (Arapaima gigas). Better management of the pirarucu fishery has not only produced socio-economic benefits for local communities but also resulted in an increased population of this important fish species8.
- Fishers as data collectors: Fishers can help to collect data by logging their own fish catches and/or reporting sightings or strandings of dolphins. For example, fishers in the Mahakam River have been vital partners in a study to assess the effectiveness of acoustic alarms (pingers) to reduce Irrawaddy dolphin bycatch9.
- Citizen Science Apps: Community members can contribute to conservation science by reporting wildlife observations via smartphone Apps. Examples of successful Apps include Ebird, Ictio (for fish), iNaturalist (which includes the option to report river dolphin sightings) as well as Whale Alert and Whale and Dolphin Tracker.
- Charles, A. (ed.) (2021). Communities, conservation and livelihoods. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN and Halifax, Canada: Community Conservation Research Network.
- Campos-Silva, J. V. & Peres, C. A. Community-based management induces rapid recovery of a high-value tropical freshwater fishery. Scientific Reports 6, 34745, doi:10.1038/srep34745 (2016).
- Fahrni Mansur, E., Akhtar, F., Smith, B.D. 2014. An Educational Outreach Strategy for Freshwater Dolphin Conservation: Measuring the Results, in Sinha, R. K. and Ahmed, B. (eds.) (2014). Rivers for Life – Proceedings of the International Symposium on River Biodiversity: Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna River System, Ecosystems for Life, A Bangladesh-India Initiative, IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, pp. 17-24
- Hoyt, E. & Iñíguez, M. The state of whale watching in Latin America. 60 (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, IFAW, Global Ocean, Chippenham, UK, 2008).
- Trujillo, F. y F. Mosquera-Guerra. (2018). Guía de observación responsable de delfines en la Amazonia colombiana. Fundación Omacha y Projects Design and Development S.A.S. Bogotá D. C., 92 p.
- Wang, B., Gao, P., Niu, X. & Sun, J. Policy-driven China’s Grain to Green Program: Implications for ecosystem services. Ecosystem Services 27, 38-47, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoser.2017.07.014 (2017).
- Limsong, H. E. S., Ath, C. S., Thomas, P. & Smith, B. Report of the International workshop on the conservation of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River. Kratie, Cambodia. January 16-18 2017. (WWF – Cambodia and FiA, 2017).
- Alves Santana, E., Fontes Oliveira, E., da Silva Balbino, N., Gurgel, H., 2020. Management of Pirarucu (Arapaima gigas, Teleostei, Osteoglossidae) in Sustainable Use Units as a proposal for the restoration of aquatic ecosystems.Acta Limnologica Brasiliensia 32(e204), DOI: 10.1590/S2179-975X2019
- Yayasan Konservasi Rasi. (2021) Pinger evaluation studies in the Mahakam River, Indonesia, July 2020-January 2021. Report to WWF. 30p.