Cute, Generally Irritating, and Endangered: Lessons from studying Irrawaddy dolphins & their conservation systems

In the waters of South and Southeast Asia dwells an elusive and funny-looking species of dolphin. It lacks the long snout of the well-known bottlenose dolphin, its back is oddly lumpy, and its mouth is turned up in a smile that is simultaneously adorable, cheeky, and mysterious. I say “cheeky” in part because they are notoriously frustrating to study; they tend to be shy of boats, scattering hither and thither while desperate researchers struggle to photograph their (tiny!) dorsal fins to identify them.

“Cute, but generally irritating,” is how one colleague describes them.

This is the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), affectionately called “waddies” by those of us who have studied them. In 2017, it was announced that the IUCN Red List had decided to change their conservation status from ‘Vulnerable’ to the more serious ‘Endangered’ — not a surprise for those of us in the waddy fan club, but still, a sad milestone for the species, and for conservation in Asia and the world. Its threats include accidental capture (bycatch) in fishing gear, changes to its habitat (especially for those Irrawaddy dolphins that live in rivers), boat traffic, and even targeted capture for display in oceanaria.

I’ve studied the problem of Irrawaddy dolphin bycatch in small-scale fisheries. To solve this problem, fishing practices will have to change — fishers will have to use different gear that does not catch dolphins, or change where or when they fish, or reduce or even stop their fishing. For communities that depend on fishing for their livelihoods, this is an immense disruption to their way of life and well-being. For local managers and governments, often with limited resources, enforcing these changes to fishing will also be challenging, especially if the communities are opposed to them.

We have a situation where Irrawaddy dolphin conservation seems mutually exclusive with the well-being of local communities (often, poor and vulnerable communities). And here lies the huge challenge of saving Irrawaddy dolphins: how can we save this species without harming local people? Even better: How can conservation be used to empower local communities, to engage them, not only to save species, but also to improve human well-being?

The challenges of Irrawaddy dolphin conservation reflect a widespread issue: around the world, species are declining in the face of human impacts, and conservation measures are often seen as threatening human well-being. In this context, conservation can be a dismal and disheartening field. With all of the time, effort, resources, and bright minds dedicated to conservation, why are we losing so many species? There are success stories, thank goodness, but there are also far too many failures.

One such failure has grabbed headlines over the past few years or so. The vaquita is a tiny porpoise and the world’s most endangered marine mammal. It lives in the upper Gulf of California in Mexico, and scientists estimate that fewer than 20 individuals remain. Its main threat has been bycatch in local gillnet fisheries, both legal and illegal — increasingly the latter after the former was banned. Its conservation situation is complex, involving cartels and illegal trafficking of fish products, and years upon years of conflict between conservationists and local communities. Last-ditch efforts to save the species by capturing it to keep in captivity were cancelled last month after they resulted in the death of one vaquita.

This conservation failure is often blamed on corruption in the Mexican government, but I see problems with this easy diagnosis. Based on my team’s research, I believe that this failure was also due to the conflict between conservationists and communities. This posed a serious obstacle to effectively changing fishing practices to reduce vaquita bycatch. Community members felt left out of the conservation process. Decisions were being made about their rights and livelihoods, without their input. Many of them wanted to contribute, to be a part of the process, to work with scientists to develop ways to fish without catching vaquita; however, they felt they weren’t given the opportunity. And so, with their main livelihood threatened by conservationists, who pushed for a ban on gillnets, these communities did not see vaquita conservation as anything other than a negative force in their lives. These conservationists did not ensure that any meaningful support reached the families who lost their livelihoods. Most of the community members we spoke with liked the vaquita, and were in favor of the idea of saving the vaquita. They vehemently opposed, however, the approaches that conservationists were taking. Many of them wondered why the vaquita’s survival mattered more than the communities’ survival.

Now, the conservationists aren’t evil, either. The ones I spoke with were distressed by the idea of conservation harming communities. But there needed to be more strong, concerted action to work with the communities and actively reduce the negative impacts they might face.

My research has sought to evaluate conservation problems as well as conservation projects, in an effort to understand the diverse dimensions of marine conservation in developing countries. Now, I’ve seen some exciting examples of wonderful work being done by conservation groups here and there (especially community and indigenous-led conservation efforts), but I would say that they are more the shining exception than the norm. What I’ve come to see is that mainstream conservation often fails for the following reasons: lack of systematic, far-sighted evaluation of conservation activities and outcomes; too-narrow focus on the cute animal, without understanding the complex ecological and human systems that the animal is linked to; failure to realize that conservation must not treat local communities as opponents, but as partners; lack of respect for human rights; and lack of creativity in incorporating ideas and approaches from other sectors. The vaquita case demonstrates all of these problems.

The frustrating part of this is that conservationists should know better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “conservation is about people,” while at conservation conferences and meetings, and yet I’ve seen so many examples where conservation efforts fail to meaningfully include people. The field of conservation knows, in theory, that people’s rights and needs matter in conservation. Yet, it’s relatively rare to see these effectively incorporated into conservation efforts.

My proposal is that we move beyond merely acknowledging the importance of the “human dimension” of conservation. We need to dedicate brainpower and research resources to learning how to actually work with people in conservation and how to handle the complex social interactions that define conservation. How can we develop processes for respectfully and collaboratively interacting with communities about conservation? How can we learn from leadership development and organizational management in order to improve how conservation groups and communities interact? How can we learn from humanitarian and development fields — from their successes and their mistakes — about implementing ethical and effective projects? And how can ways of working from the world of design help us? This is what I’m trying to explore now, with the goal of bringing these lessons back to the realm of marine mammal conservation.

What keeps me inspired are my colleagues in Southeast Asia. Several of them have started their own conservation and research groups in their home countries, or lead research projects at universities. Unlike the mainstream conservation crowd, they truly understand that conservation must meaningfully involve and respect communities. Many of them are young, bright, and open-minded, always looking to learn how to improve their conservation approaches. They are eager to work with communities, and to think creatively about how to align conservation with human well-being. Their work is daunting, but I truly believe that if anyone can save the region’s dolphins and porpoises, it’s them. To me, they are the future of conservation. The waddies are lucky to have them.

This was originally written in early 2017 as a contribution to a friend’s Master’s project, an e-zine on the Anthropocene Era. It has been updated for 2020.

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