05 January 2005

Thai dolphin rescue hits snag

Khao Lak - Rescuers failed for a second day to save two rare dolphins in tsunami-hit Thailand on Tuesday after a local official and environmentalists argued about how best to save the mammals swept inland by the giant waves.

The dolphins - a female adult and her calf - were dumped in a 300m by 200m lake left by the wall of water that struck Thailand's Andaman Sea coastline on December 26.

Rescue teams, including a group of Greek divers, failed to catch the endangered Indo-Pacific Humpbacks on Monday.

When they returned early on Tuesday, a group of local fishermen and volunteers, led by a district official, showed up on the other side of the lake with a huge net.

"They want to catch them like fish, but these are mammals and if they get tangled up in the net they will drown," said Jim Styres of the Myanmar Dolphin Project, a conservation group based in Thailand.

Ignoring pleas from the environmentalists to give them the net, the official ordered his 100-strong team to push ahead.

The men stretched the net across the full width of the lake and splashed the water to drive the dolphins into a corner. But the net snagged on debris littering the bottom.

"It looks safe, but it's not safe because there are some bodies in the water," said one member of the Greek diving team, in Thailand to help search for victims of the tsunami disaster.

The recovery of bodies around Khao Lak beach, where thousands of Thais and foreigners are believed to have died, has been a model of international co-operation involving dozens of countries.

But the dolphin rescue has been less smooth.

After Tuesday's attempt failed, the environmentalists, divers and officials argued over what to do next.

"We need some bulldozers. We need some grappling hooks and we need to clear this area," said Styres, who proposed to dredge a corner of the lake so the net could be deployed safely.

Sherry Grant, regional director for Humane Society International, suggested they dig a trench to the sea more than a kilometre away to allow the dolphins to swim to freedom.

The others seemed to doubt that would work.

Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti, who watched the failed rescue, tried to put a positive spin on the day's events.

"What we have been doing today is the best effort. There is no right way or wrong way, everyone is trying to save the dolphin," he said.

The Indo-Pacific Humpbacks were probably swept ashore in the first or second waves, environmentalists say, and were stuck behind a four-five-metre embankment about 1 400m from the sea.

"They seem to be okay, but they are probably suffering from dehydration," Styres said, adding that dolphins get their fluids from feeding on live fish.

Rescuers dropped fish into the murky water on Monday to try to keep the dolphins alive. But Styres said they were probably too stressed to feed despite going for days without food.

The Indo-Pacific Humpback has a long, slender beak and gets its name from the fatty hump under its dorsal fin. Adults grow to 2,0-2,8m and weigh 150-200kg, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Scientists view the dolphins as broadly threatened by habitat loss, pollution and hunting.


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