Cambodian 'River Guards' keep watch over a Mekong River treasure23 hours agoKAMPI, Cambodia (AFP) Ñ The absence of fishing boats on this stretch of the Mekong river, just a few kilometres (miles) north of the eastern Cambodian town of Kratie, means military policeman Em Pheap is doing his job.One of about 80 "river guards", he is part of a groundbreaking conservation effort which has been credited with helping pull the Irrawaddy dolphin back from extinction."There, there!" he pointed excitedly during a recent patrol on the river, shouldering his assault rifle and standing high on the back of the boat.The pair of dolphins, dark slivers on the horizon, broke the surface with a gentle exhale of breath heard over the murmur of the current running through the submerged trees in this vast monsoon season flood plain.The total number of Mekong dolphins is unknown, but marine specialists say the mammals remain some of the world's most critically endangered.With their pale grey skin and blunt beaks, they dolphins resemble porpoises more than their sea-going cousins.Their numbers already vastly reduced by Cambodia's drawn-out civil conflict -- dolphin blubber was used to lubricate machine parts and light lamps -- these graceful creatures are now falling prey to development and the attendant problem of over-crowding as this wild corner of the country opens up.The Mekong is one of only five freshwater habitats in the world for this species of dolphin, and Cambodia supports its largest remaining population, thought to hover around 100 congregating in a handful of natural deep-water pools."The Kratie-Stung Treng stretch of the Mekong is their last stronghold," said Richard Zanre, the World Wildlife Fund's freshwater programme manager in Cambodia, describing a river habitat running 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Kratie to Stung Treng, Cambodia's last large port before the Mekong crosses over into Laos.War and the ensuing lawlessness kept the region largely out of the reach of researchers for decades. But since around 2001, biologists and other wildlife experts have discovered an unexpectedly rich biosphere.At its core are the dolphins, "a flagship species for the conservation of the river," says the WWF.Desperate to revive a plummeting population, the government created the river guards, the first organisation of its kind and part of a conservation effort launched last year after a spate of mysterious dolphin deaths.But while the guards appear to have had some success in bringing dolphin numbers back up, they have been met with hostility and sometimes violence from local villagers who make their living along the river."The most important thing is to cooperate with the people," said Touch Seang Tana, chairman of the government's Commission for Mekong River Dolphin Conservation."Without the participation of the local people in conservation, we will not be successful."A spike in deaths among mostly dolphin calves last year left officials scrambling to re-think their conservation efforts as Cambodia prepared to launch one of its most ambitious tourism efforts to date: the Mekong River Discovery Trail.The Trail, which hopes to bring tourism and development to one of Cambodia's most-neglected regions, roughly follows the dolphins' habitat.The animals' survival is crucial to the plan's success, officials say."No dolphins means no tourism. No tourism means no development," Tourism Minister Thong Khon said last week as the Trail, a joint UN-Cambodian project, was announced.The solution, according to Touch Seang Tana, was to try to radically change the economy of the river to make dolphins more valuable alive than dead.Alternate means of livelihood would be introduced to villages along the river to take advantage of a booming tourism sector that has already benefited other parts of the country."My idea is... to try to get poor fishermen to change over to tourism," Touch Seang Tana told AFP. "I give them tour boats" to bring visitors to see the dolphins.Reducing villagers' dependence on fishing is hoped to also see a drop in the use of gillnets.Cheap and easy to use, gillnets are as efficient a killer of dolphins as they are of fish, said Touch Seang Tana, a marine scientist by training who blames this now illegal fishing method for "99 percent" of dolphin deaths.But getting local fishermen to risk their livelihoods for an animal that is of little value commercially or as food has been hard, he explained."I tried to invite them to meetings to explain our actions, even tried to pay them money... But they didn't come, they sent their pregnant wives," he said."We decided then that we'll confiscate (fishing gear) and then they came. They came with knives, they wanted to kill the river guards," he added."They want to kill all of the dolphins because they are keeping people from making a living."Since the introduction of the river guards, however, illegal net fishing, along with the use of explosives or electrical charges to catch fish -- practices that also inadvertently kill dolphins -- have dropped, said guard Em Pheap."Before it was a big problem, but now people are understanding more about this," he said.The WWF's Zanre told AFP that while the number of dying dolphin calves is still dangerously high, "adult dolphin mortalities have declined" as a result of conservation.Even before the Discovery Trail becomes a reality, its successes are evident in Kampi, where dolphins have become the local industry.Aside from the boats lining up for sightseers, nearly every house along the narrow tree-lined road shadowing the river hawks tiny dolphin carvings."Everyone earns the money, even the children, from dolphins. You can see their livelihood has changed -- you can see televisions in houses, some people even have motorcycles," Touch Seang Tana said."The dolphin is so important. I tell them 'The dolphin is everything for you' and now they can see that," he added."Its future is their future."