Change on the Mighty Mekong

The Diplomat
1 April 2015

Hunger for affordable energy is threatening traditional livelihoods and a unique biodiversity.

Just after climbing the muddy, five-meter-high banks of the Mekong river near Yuen Sean, a reclusive village in northern Cambodia, a plain, wooden hut appears, its shape and size similar to the dozens of modest homes of the poor fishing families who live here.

Inside awaits a place of worship. Covered by curtains, whose orange has faded from the beams of sunlight shining through the planks, a glass casket lies in the middle of the hut. It’s the final resting place of a rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphin, its spine, vertebrae and bulky skull assembled as if it were an ancient fossil.

The Irrawaddy dolphin is so rare and sensational to Cambodians that they believe the bumpy-headed gray mammal used to be human. Hundreds of years ago, the folk tale goes, a young girl who was pursued by an evil force sought help from the mighty Mekong. In answering her prayers, the Mekong turned the girl into a dainty river creature, able to escape her pursuers in the stream. This was the birth of the dolphin, villagers like Morn Da believe.

“Folk tales tell us that the dolphins originated from human beings, so that’s part of the reason why we love and care for the dolphins like human beings,” said the 27-year-old fisherman, who lives next to the shrine in Yeun Sean village.

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