Conserving Indonesia’s last freshwater dolphins: Community-action for Protected Area management

Conservationist Ir Budiono is the Founder and Director of Yayasan Konservasi RASI (YK-RASI), an NGO established in 2000 to protect endangered aquatic species and their habitats in Indonesia.

The Mahakam River and its surrounding wetlands in the South East of Indonesian Borneo are ecologically important, providing breeding grounds for migrating birds and supporting a number of endangered species. The river and its tributaries also provide habitat for two species of crocodile, smooth coated otters and 98 species of fish – a vital resource to hundreds of local fishermen who have come to rely on the Mahakam as a provider of food and income for their families.

The Mahakam River is also home to Indonesia’s last population of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, or pesut, as they are known locally. In recent years, numbers of Irrawaddy dolphins have fallen dramatically as over-fishing, pollution and development have caused damage to the ecosystem, resulting in declining fish stocks, reducing the amount of prey available to dolphins. This loss of fish is also affecting the local communities who are finding it increasingly hard to sustain their livelihoods.

The introduction of modern fishing gear also poses a direct threat to the dolphins as drownings often occur as a result of becoming entangled in gillnets. With only 90 individuals estimated to remain, action is urgently needed to save this critically endangered population from extinction. Tackling these issues, Budi and his team are working to establish community-supported protected areas that encompass important habitat for both dolphins and their prey whilst also developing management plans built on collaboration with local stakeholders. Budi explains, “Because of the community involvement, the protected areas have a greater chance of success in comparison to nature reserves, which have been established from ‘above’ and have paid less attention to the communities’ needs”.

Through awareness raising and education, Budi is also inspiring the adoption of less harmful fishing practices, such as by encouraging the regular checking of nets, and providing training for the safe release of entangled dolphins. Sustainable aqua-culture and ecotourism initiatives, using the dolphins as a flagship species, are also providing alternative sources of income and reducing the pressure on fish stocks whilst building a local commitment to conservation.

“Because the problems faced by villagers are similar to those facing the pesut, they feel that their conservation is very important as it will also help to increase their fish resources and build a more sustainable future for all.”

Full winners list