A rustling catches the attention of local wildlife conservationist Budiono and his research team as their longboat putters up the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan. Along this jungle-flanked stretch on the island of Borneo, seasonal downpours have swollen the muddy waters, breaching the banks and creating a maze of lakes, marshes and inundated forests. The vast floodplain pulses with a steamy equatorial heat, but the researchers soldier on, unperturbed by the stifling humidity soaking their clothes.
Shadowy figures dart across the tree canopy. Peering through binoculars, research assistant Innal Rahman zooms in on the commotion. “Lutung,” he reports, using the local name for the silvery langurs leaping from branch to branch. Though amusing, monkeys aren’t what the team is searching for on this expedition. Nor are they looking for the herons and hornbills perched on barren treetops. They scan the waters, hoping for a more unusual creature to emerge.
For nearly two decades, Budiono has been looking out for one of the river’s most elusive residents: the Irrawaddy dolphin or Orcaella brevirostris. Locally called pesut, these aquatic mammals once thrived along a greater length of the Mahakam River, all the way down to the urban sprawl of Samarinda. One of the world’s most endangered cetaceans, the Mahakam subpopulation currently numbers only 80.
Driven by the dire situation of the river dolphins and other fauna in Kalimantan, Budiono set up the Conservation Foundation for Rare Aquatic Species of Indonesia (Yayasan Konservasi RASI) in 2000 with his wife, Dutch biologist Danielle Kreb. Since 1999, Kreb has been pioneering an extensive study of the Mahakam River’s dolphin population, and her ongoing research might soon reveal some sensational news.
“We think the Mahakam dolphins are a new species, Orcaella mahakamensis, since initial analysis has revealed that their DNA is significantly different,” Kreb says excitedly, sitting at the RASI office in Samarinda. She points out how Mahakam dolphins are slightly smaller, have a distinct body shape, and often surface in a more restrained manner compared to other populations.
This news only highlights the very real and present threats the dolphins currently face, as the reclassification of the pesut will also mean that they’re actually far more endangered than Irrawaddy dolphins, given their newfound endemicity.
Their local numbers are chiefly threatened by gillnetting, a fishing method using large panels of
nets strung across the river. Moreover, palm oil plantations and coal mining have also taken their toll, mounting more pressure on the dolphins and the river ecosystem. Their numbers began to rapidly decline in the 1990s, and their distribution is now concentrated some 180 km upstream along the main river, including adjacent lakes and tributaries.
The second-longest river in Indonesia, the Mahakam meanders for 980km from the central highlands across a drainage basin of 77,100 km2 – an area 100 times larger than Singapore – before flowing out into the Makassar Strait. Like large swathes of Borneo, it’s an ecologically important region, home to 147 native fish species and nearly 300 bird species. You’ll also find endangered hairy-nosed otters, Siamese crocodiles and proboscis monkeys.
On this current seven-day expedition, Budiono and his research assistants are conducting a routine survey. As well as collecting water samples from headwaters, they are searching for the dolphins. The creatures have been increasingly displaced by the massive coal barges that are now encroaching on tributaries where the animals seek refuge from the busy traffic of the main river.
Spotting the dolphins is no easy task. These animals are shy compared to their ocean- dwelling cousins that bow-ride right next to vessels. Irrawaddy dolphins usually prefer to stay clear of motorised boats. And unlike open-water cetaceans that frolic in translucent seas, they live in opaque rivers and estuaries, making them even harder to spot.
“To find pesut, you need good eyes, good ears and a good heart,” says Budiono, whose stern countenance and commanding demeanour soften when the conversation shifts from the exploitation of Kalimantan’s natural resources to his special connection with the timid but intelligent mammals. He fondly recounts rescuing a pair trapped in a receding swamp last year; and how the same two dolphins, he believes, reappeared later in the evening next to the floating research station as a way of thanking him. “They are grateful, like most animals, when humans are good to them,” says the 43-year-old dolphin whisperer.
This affection between dolphins and humans is especially apparent with the Dayak, Kutai and Banjar villagers who reside in stilted settlements and raft houses along the river. The local folklore often tells how these aquatic mammals originated from humans. Innal – who also works as a freelance tour guide when he isn’t helping on surveys – recalls different versions of the legend, all of them involving a pot of rice guarded by a shaman’s spell. Whoever ate it became so hot they jumped into the river to cool down, magically morphing into dolphins.
Darwis, the taciturn boatman from Kota Bangun often hired by RASI, has grown to appreciate the gentle creatures. Dolphin-watching trips now bring him an alternative livelihood, vital ever since a new bridge linking riverside towns left most boatmen in his village jobless. “I really enjoy taking visitors around to find pesut,” says the eagle-eyed villager, who, Innal swears, can spot them from a kilometre away.
However, despite all their experience, the research team is out of luck. A whole day’s search and not a single dolphin. Budiono puts this down to the high water level, which allows the animals to travel further for food. As dusk approaches, ominous clouds begin dumping rain onto the landscape, prompting a retreat back to town.
They had better luck the previous day when they encountered two pods hunting for fish not far from the research station. At a churning confluence, right where the Belayan river meets the Mahakam, eight grey dolphins – including a calf swimming close to its mother – surfaced out of nowhere. The snuffing of their blowholes preceded the fleeting sight of their arched backs rolling above the water, framed by nearby shingled dwellings and rickety boardwalks.
A solitary animal swam closer to their longboat to investigate, vertically exposing its entire head above the water – a behaviour called “spyhopping”. Related to the killer whale, pesut look strikingly different from typical dolphins, their snout-less faces with small eyes and impish grins giving them an adorable appearance. Armed with powerful telephoto lenses, Budiono and Innal began photographing the dolphins to capture their short dorsal fins, which, like human fingerprints, are unique and crucial for identification.
Meanwhile, another assistant, Novitasari, a zealous new recruit in her mid-twenties, logged their GPS coordinates and observable behaviour on data sheets. “I’d rather be out here than confined in a cubicle every
day,” admits the enthusiastic ex-journalist who quit her desk job to join RASI, inspired by the organisation’s + community-oriented approach to conservation.
Funded by international conservation grants and donor companies, RASI has conducted scientific studies and spearheaded grassroots campaigns, especially among fishermen, to minimise gillnet entanglement – the leading cause of dolphin deaths – by reducing the mesh size of their fishing nets, as well as teaching them how to rescue trapped animals.
But while most of the action happens out in the field, there’s more work to be done back at the office. As Budiono leads the survey upstream, Kreb toils away on her laptop, matching thousands of dolphin images from previous surveys with existing catalogues for identification, a meticulous job that can take months. Thankfully, it seems like the painstaking work is bearing fruit. The 46-year-old is beaming after a phone conversation with the environmental ministry, which will hopefully lead to a confirmation of her findings about the Mahakam pesut. The agency has been helping her send more skin samples collected from deceased specimens to a laboratory in Yogyakarta.
The phone call is further proof for Kreb that they are studying a distinctive dolphin species. “New species are always a big thing and it will certainly increase government attention towards their conservation,” she explains of its significance.
Protecting these unique animals may be a daunting task, but Kreb hasn’t lost hope. “Some people are born with a sense of optimism and some aren’t. I belong to the former,” she says. As the dedicated team at RASI continues to champion the critically threatened species, motivating more people to join the cause, the dolphins of the Mahakam have a fighting chance to flourish again, and ultimately be saved from becoming merely the stuff of legend.
From Balikpapan, take a shared taxi or public bus (three hours) at Sultan Aji Muhammad Sulaiman International Airport or Batu Ampar Bus Terminal, respectively, to Sungai Kunjang Bus Terminal in Samarinda, where buses leave for Kota Bangun (three hours), the jump-off point to dolphin habitats along the Mahakam River. Arrange dolphin watching trips in advance with Yayasan Konservasi RASI via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
An alternative way to reach Kota Bangun from Samarinda is the scenic but slow (10- hour) cruise up the river on the two-level wooden kapal umum (public ferry) that departs daily from Sungai Kunjang Ferry Terminal at 7am. Inform the boat captain that you want to be dropped off at Kota Bangun, as the town isn’t a regular stop.
The RASI team
Indonesian conservationist Budiono and his wife, Dutch biologist Danielle Kreb set up the Conservation Foundation for Rare Aquatic Species of Indonesia (Yayasan Konservasi RASI) in 2000. Their aim is to protect the endangered wildlife located in the East Kalimantan region of Borneo. Funded by international grants, they look to do this through scientific studies and grassroots campaigns that educate local communities on sustainable practices.
With only around 6,000 left in the wild, the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) – sometimes nicknamed “waddy” – is one of the world’s rarest marine mammals. A majority can be found off the coast of Bangladesh and India in the Bay of Bengal, but the few hundred across Southeast Asia face the threat of extinction. Discontinuous subpopulations are spread across Indochina, Borneo and the Philippines, where they can also be found in river systems like Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, from which
the species take its name. Gillnet entanglement, water pollution and boat collisions are among the causes of their significant decline.
Here’s where to spot waddy across the network:
Cambodia – Irrawaddy dolphins are the main draw of Kratie, a riverside town located 160km from Phnom Penh. The latest World Wildlife Fund (WWF) census has reported the first increase of the Mekong population in 20 years. Sustainable ecotourism and stricter law enforcement have seen their numbers bounce back to almost 100.
India – Travellers can organise boat trips to Chilika Lake, the country’s largest coastal lagoon, from Puri, 500 km south of Kolkata. Home to around 150 Irrawaddy dolphins, this expanse of water is the single largest habitat for the species.
Myanmar – Dolphin-watching tours leave Mandalay to Myayzun village, where fishermen practise cooperative fishing with the 60-odd remaining Irrawaddy dolphins – a method that’s found nowhere else in the world.
This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine