We spring out of the very comfortable folds of our beds at 4 am and polish our sleepy faces in readiness for Gordon and Verne. They are already waiting outside with a couple of Camrys, the national conveyor in Cambodia, (did you know that a Camry could drive up the side of a rain-soaked mountain, or ford a flooded stream? They can, it’s terrifying!).
We leave for the Kampi dolphin pools and are on the water well before the sunrise. It is chilly and in the darkness the water starts to glow with that deep indigo which signals the coming of the light, and in its beautiful surface we begin to make out the shapes of rising dolphins.
As the sun touches the tops of the trees we interview Verne. She recounts her findings about the impact of pollution on the river dolphins. The significance of a population of aquatic mammals dying from disease caused by persistent organic poisons, mercury and insecticides extends to the millions of people who exist in a symbiotic relationship with the river. Here in Cambodia almost all the nutrients and proteins in people’s diets come from the fish and from agriculture fed by the river. If the dolphins are being poisoned by the Mekong then it is only a matter of time before people start suffering the same problems. And these poisons will remain, even if they were stopped today, in the water for a generation to come.
Verne explains that there were once thousands of dolphins in the river, but the wars and starvation, plus brute cruelty of soldiers decimated the animals until there is now only a handful left. The impact of fishing with gill nets further thinned their numbers. She has dedicated the next 5 years to finding a solution to saving them. In her opinion unless something is done in that time, it will simply be too late.
After lunch we return to Kampi village and film the villagers sculpting wooden dolphin of various sizes to sell to the tourists. We buy handfuls of them as souvenirs and gifts. I have one hanging from my thumb drive sticking out of this computer now. By the river we meet the Commune Chief who is working with Tanna to generate alternative incomes for villagers now no longer fishing with gill nets. He shows us some of the fishing apparatus still in use, a hand thrown net, a small fish trap full of good-sized fish, and also a large rattan basket, the size of a large cupboard, stuffed with medium-sized branches and suspended on the end of a long fulcrum pointing down into the river. It must work by being lowered into the river and left there, where it would seem a safe and maze like hiding place for fish, resting between the many branches. Then after a time it is lifted, like a giant ice-cream scoop and the surprised fish find themselves in the hands of happy villagers. We filmed an interview with the Chief who told us the story of the creation of the dolphins. The dolphins it seems came from the self-sacrifice of a princess, whose tragic love to a giant serpent, who betrayed her, caused her to fling herself into the Mekong, whereupon she turned into a dolphin.
Next we drove further upstream to the HQ of the River Guards where Tanna and some 30 men in uniform were waiting for us. We set them all up in rows and interviewed their commander about his work. One of the guards sang for us a song about the dolphins and love. Then to prove their readiness for duty, the guards performed a drill. In formation they ran down the riverbanks and leapt into their long-tailed boats, dispersing in a hilarious display of near accidents and stalled motors to all points of the compass.
Our time in Kratie came to an end suddenly, as we decided to make good time for the next story’s location on the Tonle Sap by catching a night bus to Kampong Cham. In the twilight we boarded the bus and left with our eyes still searching the waters of the river for the rising signs of the dolphins.