Archive for the ‘Mekong Journals’ Category

Mekong Journals: 15

January 10, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 15 of the series.]

 

Isabel’s survey is intended to establish, in a reliable way, the extent and limits of the dolphin habitat on the river. There are, Isabel said, no established techniques for riverine surveys of cetaceans. The protocols and methodology have to be based on survey techniques for other riverine fauna. Essentially they have to be made up, by combining the techniques of marine mammal research with the procedures of river-systems research.

 

 

 

The methodology that Isabel is applying here is one that she has evolved to suit the circumstances. This is how the survey is conducted: a boatload of surveyors goes up a certain stretch of river, recording dolphin sightings. Where the river channel is less than 2 kilometres wide they chart a straight course down the middle. Where the channel is more than 2 km wide they chart a straight course down the middle. When the channel is more than 2 km wide, they cover the channel by following a zigzag course, going from one bank to the other. The zigzags have to be carefully charted – if the turns are too wide then not enough of the river is covered; if they’re not wide enough then there’s wastage of fuel and effort. The course that every boat follows is recorded on the hand-held GPS device which takes a reading every three minutes and creates a detailed chart. These readings can be fed into the computer and superimposed on a map of the river. Every time a dolphin is spotted a data-sheet must be filled out.

 

Isabel, left and Mr Somany

 

 

There are two kinds of data record: one is a data sheet which is filled out every time a dolphin or dolphin group is spotted. The other is an ‘Effort Sheet’. This charts the periods between sightings, in periods when the observers are trying to spot dolphins.


Mekong Journals: 14

January 8, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (1)

 

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 14 of the series.]

 

All this while Isabel had been agonizing about what to do with the dog. In New Zealand he would have been put down of course, and she was considering whether he ought to be put down anyway, in case he did this again, to someone else. When we got back to the house she tried to explain this to the landlord, through her Cambodian colleague, Mr Somany. But he did not understand what ‘put down’ meant. ‘Killed’, said Isabel, ‘killed in his sleep with one injection’. Mr Somany went pale and was at a loss for words. When he finally succeeded in translating this to the landlord’s family they merely tittered in amazement. I remembered how amazed I myself had been when I first heard of ‘putting down’ as a concept – I couldn’t imagine what it would sound like to Buddhist ears.

We left the matter unresolved and Isabel went off to change and clean up. Then we went down the road to have some dinner – Isabel was perfectly cheerful, very much in command of her emotions. I was amazed; I had thought that she would go into shock once we were back home. But no; she was quite remarkably brave and took it all in her stride.

While we were eating dinner, the landlord appeared, on his moped. The private doctor was back from the wedding he said, and was ready to give Isabel her tetanus shot. Isabel went off with the landlord: ‘It’ll just take a minute…’

Fifteen minutes later she came back, looking puzzled. The doctor had given her a note scheduling six more shots over the next several days. ‘But then,’ I said, in alarm, ‘he must have given you a rabies shot – for tetanus you get only a single shot.’

Her colleague was summoned. He looked at the note and confirmed our suspicions: she’d been given a shot for rabies, not tetanus.

‘Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse…’ But still she stayed cheerful and finished her dinner. She even insisted, over my objections, that she would not postpone the survey, and that it would go ahead as scheduled. Later she called another veterinarian friend, in Phnom Penh, who told her that she should continue her rabies shots, just in case, and she’s already worked out a schedule of how she’s going to do this while we’re heading north towards Laos.

 


Mekong Journals: 13

January 5, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 13 of the series.]

 

When we turned into the hospital I had an extraordinarily vivid recollection of visits to upcountry Cambodian hospitals in Jan 1993. They were nothing more than jumbles of dilapidated shacks; the wards were crammed with people; the stench was unbelievable. They were like something from Inferno.

To my astonishment, the Kratie hospital was freshly painted, as bright as a new coin. It’s a  cheerful provincial hospital. Compared to its Indian counterparts it looks almost First world.

The interior didn’t quite match the exterior, but it was still a great improvement on the rural hospitals of Cambodia in 1993. Patients were squirming on rather dirty-looking beds, with their families camped around them. There was only one nurse on duty and she seemed a little flustered and uncertain. She led us into an emergency ward and had a look at Isabel’s wounds. Where was the doctor? The wound on Isabel’s wrist definitely needed stitches and I couldn’t see that this nurse would be able to do the job. The doctor was away at a wedding, the nurse said. What about the other doctors? They were all at the wedding. Could they be called? The nurse wasn’t sure; she disappeared for a bit. In the meanwhile Isabel sat on the operating table, holding her wrist, obviously in great pain. Yet she was completely composed, smiling. The entire ward had crowded around the door to watch, and Isabel had a smile for everyone.

We called an American vet who lives here in Kratie. He was clearly not interested in getting involved. ‘Oh just get some stitches and get outta there.’ The problem was that there was no one to do the stitching. I told him that we were kinda hoping that he’d do it. ‘I don’t work on humans; just haven’t worked on humans much; she’ll be fine there. They’ll stitch her up.’

Various nurses wandered in and out offering bits of advice. One said that dog-inflicted wounds couldn’t be stitched; another said that the doctors weren’t going to leave the wedding to do the stitches… There was no one to translate and we couldn’t make ourselves understood. Then, at last, one of Isabel’s Cambodian colleagues arrived. Suddenly, with the circuitry of language in place, things began to move. A nurse practitioner appeared and was attested to be an expert at stitching; even the doctors left the stitching to her we were told.

Isabel was given some local anesthetic and then the nurse took out an evil-looking curved needle and some thick black gut. She thrust the needle into Isabel’s wrist as if she were trying to hook a fish – jabbing, pushing, grunting. For a moment I thought I was going to be sick, but Isabel sat through it without any fuss. Her teeth was clenched and she was muttering under her breath, but her composure remained intact through all of it. After the stitching was over she got up and walked out and even arranged a payment for nurses ($20). I thought of George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’.

Then we went looking for a tetanus shot: this we were told, had to be administered by a private doctor. At this point, we weren’t concerned about rabies shots at all – because Isabel had been inoculated against rabies six years ago, when she was working with bats in New Zealand. The dog had also been inoculated against rabies, so that seemed to be taken care of. So it was tetanus that was the immediate concern when we looking for the private doctor’s home. Alas, he too was away at the wedding. We left a message with his family and came back to the house.

 


Mekong Journals: 12

January 4, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 12 of the series.]

 

January 7, 2003

Yesterday, as I was writing that last sentence, Isabel came running to the door, spattered with blood. ‘Amitav I’ve been attacked by my dog. I have to go to the hospital.’ She was clutching her left wrist, with a hand that had deep puncture marks. Her T shirt and her pants were stained and bloody. There was a deep six-inch incision in her wrist and some eight wounds along both forearms. There was also a bad bruise on her waist.

‘Of course, I’ll come with you,’ I said. Downstairs the landlord and his son were waiting on their mopeds. We climbed on and headed straight to the hospital.

What had happened was this: after we came back from the survey (at about 5:15) she took her dog ‘Mange’ for a walk. The dog is a small black mutt that she adopted in Phnom Penh last year. Apparently the dog was always a good companion to her, until about a week ago. That was when the landlord locked away another dog, his pet, in a cage, as a punishment. The dog had killed a chicken. The landlord has several dogs and he and his family seem to care for Mange too, especially when Isabel is away. The dogs were used to running around together and evidently Mange was upset at having his companion locked up and had been misbehaving ever since. Certainly he growled very fiercely at me when I arrived – I didn’t like the look in his eye and decided straight away that I’d give him a wide berth.

Yesterday, when Isabel took Mange for a walk, he was distracted and behaved oddly, running back to the house very soon after she’d taken him out. She followed him back and found him sitting beside the caged dog. She yelled at him: bad dog, and waved a finger. The dog growled and she decided that she couldn’t back down. She reached for the collar to pin him down, establishing dominance. But when she took hold of his collar, he turned sideways and fastened his jaws on her and wouldn’t let go. She shook him off but he came after her again and again, attacking her four times, quite savagely. Then he ran upstairs into this apartment. She thought it might attack me and hoped that I was in the shower.

I did hear howls, barks and shouts. But I’ve grown used to hearing strange noises from this dog: it makes a fearsome howling sound, as if it were being tortured, every time Isabel pets it. So I decided to ignore the noise. And then she appeared at the door, with blood all over her.

 


Mekong Journals: 11

January 2, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 11 of the series.]

 

Isabel was on her way to visit Clasico, on Nov 26, when she had a terrible accident. She was sitting side-saddle on the moped – which is the normal way for a woman to sit – and the driver was trying to turn. They were hit by another moped, which went directly into Isabel. She was thrown off, her femur was broken and her knee was shattered. She was brought back to Phnom Penh and it was clear at once that she would have to be Medevaced. She had Australian medical insurance and she assumed that it would be a straightforward affair to have the evacuation covered. But when she called Australia to confirm, the insurance company told her about a detail that she hadn’t known about, something in small print – that the insurance company would pay for evacuation only if the driver of the vehicle had an Australian driver’s license. This was a great shock for the cost was huge. She was in utter despair and her brain had begun to swell because her skull was fractured. But somehow, through friends, the money was raised and the plane flew out from Bangkok. Just 15 minutes before she was to leave the CEO of the insurance company called her to say that the company would pay after all. Apparently what had happened was that her doctor had called the company and told them that if Isabel wasn’t taken to Bangkok she was going to die, and the company would be stuck with huge lawsuits. This made the company cave. Isabel was taken to Bangkok, she received medical attention, the procedures were successful and she went off to New Zealand to recuperate. Soon after, two of her colleagues organized Clasico’s release. Everything went well, but for Isabel the release was a disappointment because very little data was recorded.

But the story ended on a happy note. After all the disappointments of 2001-2, she was back in Kratie at last, sitting in this very pavilion, when she noticed, one day, that a dolphin was surfacing repeatedly, very close to her. It happened so many times that it seemed to be more than random; it was almost as though the animal were trying to attract her attention. She took many pictures of it and later when they were developed, she realized that it was none other than Clasico.

 

 

 


Mekong Journals: 10

December 30, 2011 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 10 of the series.]

 

Clasico’s story: In June-July 2001 a group of dolphins was seen about 40 kms from Phnom Penh in the floodplains.

 

Phnom Penh, 1993

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was very unusual, because dolphins are rarely seen that far south. There are only anecdotal reports of dolphins around Phnom Penh in recent years and the last official sighting in the Tonle Sap was in the 1970s.

 

 

Steamers, Tonle Sap, 1993

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The group seen in 2001 was also unusual in that they were roaming about the flood-plain – in other words they were at large in the submerged rice paddies, in water that was only a few metres deep. These sightings were in an area called Preah An Chung. As the year progressed and the water levels dropped most of the dolphins managed to get back to the river. But two of them didn’t manage to get out and at the onset of the dry season they found themselves trapped. One was caught in a small tributary – a waterway that still had a useable connection to the river. But for some reason the dolphin failed to make use of it and remained trapped within the tributary. The second dolphin was caught in an irrigation channel – or rather a fish-pond that was connected to the river by an irrigation channel. This was the animal that would come to be known as Clasico.

 

 

 

The local people alerted the Fisheries Department to the presence of these animals and through them word reached Isabel. Over the next few months, that is Sept-Nov, Isabel visited the dolphin many times – 40 or 50 times. She would spend weeks at a stretch in Phnom Penh and every day she would drive out, on a hired moped, to see the dolphins. She’d visit both of them but she’d spend more time with Clasico because he was caught in a smaller pool and it was evident from the start that at a certain point he would have to be caught and released. The other dolphin had a larger area to inhabit and Isabel assumed that he’d be able to get out under his own steam some day. But with Clasico she had to take many precautionary measures from the start – she took soundings of his pool and built a fence to keep boats and children out of the deeper areas. Because the pool still had a connection with the river, the fish escaped and the dolphin’s food supply dwindled. So she started bringing Clasico fish to feed on. The fish were barely alive when she got them there and Clasico would eat the first couple but not the others – this despite the fact that he was losing a lot of weight and was becoming quite emaciated.


Mekong Journals: 9

in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 9 of the series.]

 

Almost nothing is known of the parental and mating behaviour of orcaella. There are only speculations based on what is known of other species, particularly Tursiops which have extensively studied in Shark Bay in Australia.

 

 

By noon the sun was burning hot and Isabel decided to move on to the pavilion on the water at Kampi, just below the observation station. Here, in the shade, it is very tranquil, with cows grazing on the banks behind us and dolphins surfacing repeatedly in front of us, within a dozen yards.

 

 

 

At Chroy Banteay we briefly glimpsed a dolphin throwing up water. Isabel thinks this is done in two ways – one is by butting the water; the other is by actually spitting. Whenever Isabel has observed this, the dolphin spits repeatedly in a kind of semi-circle. Her ‘very preliminary’ hypothesis is that its creating a curtain of bubbles so that the fish will turn back and head directly towards it (the dolphin). Apparently fish are often reluctant to swim through bubbles. This makes more sense to me that the notion that they spit in order to herd (towards whom?).

 


Mekong Journals: 8

December 29, 2011 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 8 of the series.]

 

The dolphins keep surfacing all around us, as we drift in the water here at Chroy Banteay, but always unpredictably. At 11 am it is very hot, the sun relentless. Isabel is without a hat or any protective gear. She is standing, camera at the ready. That’s all she’s done all morning, and that’s all she’ll do all day. There are long periods of quiet followed by sudden rockings of the boat as she spins around to take a picture, after a dolphin announces its presence with a snort. Often these bursts of activity are followed by mild expletives, occasioned by the missing of a shot.

For almost an hour now our boat has been beached pretty close to the shore, and we’ve repeatedly spotted the mother-and-child pair of dolphins. Isabel thinks that the young one might be a juvenile because it seems to go off on its own a bit. But the pair have stayed within fifty metres of me, surfacing in tandem repeatedly. They are occasionally joined by a couple of others – but the mother and child seem to stay together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the distance, booming faintly across the water is the throbbing of a bass guitar – somebody’s amplified karaoke.

 

 

 

 

 

Isabel says that this is one the best morning’s viewings she’s ever had and she thinks she may even have identified a couple of new individuals – she hadn’t seen the mother before.

Isabel also carries a Global Positioning System device – a small hand-held unit, which she uses to establish the co-ordinates of each sighting.

 


Mekong Journals: 7

December 27, 2011 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 7 of the series.]

 

April-May is the height of the dry season and in those months the rivers fall. The topography of the river is very scattered here – there are many little islands and outcrops of rock, and also large clumps of bushes. Isabel says that dolphins are often seen in the vicinity of the bushes, possibly because fish breed more plentifully around the bushes and islands.

 

 

 

 

 

A short way up from this stretch of river are some rapids. Between here and Stung Treng and the Laos border there are many such rapids, some quite steep. At some times of the year when the river is high, there are navigable channels that skirt the rapids, but at other times of the year the rapids are impassable. Apparently the Chinese have hatched a plan to make the Mekong navigable all year round, so that big container ships will be able to travel much farther up. To do this they will simply blow up the rapids and make the river deeper in those stretches. This had caused great concern for Isabel and others in the conservation community; they think that it will greatly endanger the dolphins and other species. The rapids are close enough to be visible from the pools at Kampi and Chroy Banteay. It is hard to see how explosions so close by could have anything other than a catastrophic effect.

 

 


Mekong Journals: 6

December 26, 2011 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 6 of the series.]

 

 

The dolphin pools have very distinctive shapes and the dolphins seem to dislike certain kinds of underwater topography. Isabel and her associates take regular soundings of the river bottom, with a hand-held sounding device. A detailed topographical survey of the Mekong has also been conducted recently and she uses that in building a comprehensive picture of the riverbed and the kind of underwater terrain favoured by the dolphin.

 

Generally speaking she finds that the dolphins don’t like very deep passages. There are areas that plunge to seventy metres, but the dolphins stay away from those stretches. They prefer pool shaped areas that are from 10 metres to 30 metres deep. These areas are also generally pool-like in shape. Less than 10 metres they don’t seem to like although local people have told her that they’ve seen animals occasionally going really close to shore.

 

Since coming over to this pool we’ve had good luck and have seen several animals surfacing quite close up. But Isabel has not been able to get any really good shots. This is very frustrating for her. The animals generally surface once, twice, and then they disappear. If you haven’t caught them by the second shot you’ve missed your chance. Isabel counts herself lucky to get one good shot a day. Yesterday she got a good dorsal-fin shot of Rags – that made it a very good day. The day before she got a good shot of Clasico.

 



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