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Rare Dolphin Species Makes A Comeback

NOEL KING, HOST:

OK. We have some good news today about a species that is almost extinct. The dolphins of the Irrawaddy River are making a comeback.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So what are the Irrawaddy River dolphins exactly? Well, they're a rare species of dolphin native to Southeast Asia, like rivers in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. And they look a lot like beluga whales with these adorable smiles, rounded foreheads - but smaller and with a small, curved dorsal fin.

DAPHNE WILLEMS: So when you sit in the boat and you see it coming along, first thing you hear is a big sigh. Then they're breathing out just like, phew.

KING: That's Daphne Willems. She leads the Global River Dolphin Initiative at the World Wildlife Fund. And she says it's really uncommon to see the dolphins, especially these days.

GREENE: The number of Irrawaddy River dolphins dropped over the last couple of decades from about 200 in the 1990s to just 84 last year. As for the cause of this decline...

WILLEMS: It's all due to us.

KING: Willems says it's two things - dams that destroy dolphin habitats and fishing nets that trap them. But things are turning around for the dolphins.

WILLEMS: It has been a very positive year. I just said the low levels of the Mekong River are disturbing. But at the same time, we've seen more newborns of the Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong than deaths. So we have celebrated the 13th calf last week. And that's really a big change.

GREENE: Yeah. The change - this is bringing the number of dolphins up to 92. And that is huge, Willems says. And it's because the rules around fishing nets are actually being enforced these days.

KING: This is really important because if the dolphins thrive, it means that everything around them thrives, too.

WILLEMS: When the river dolphin is doing well, you know there's enough fish in the river. You know the water is clean. You know there's natural habitat. So when the dolphin is doing well, people will do well.

GREENE: So here's to hoping the Irrawaddy River dolphins keep swimming on - for all of our sake.

(SOUNDBITE OF R12BEATS' "MIU WA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.