Students 'Swim' with dolphins

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 12:00am

As a child, Karen Chan Kit-yu often wondered at the difference between animals and humans; when she grew up, she found herself outraged at stories of animals abused, slaughtered by, or facing extinction due to humans. She wanted to do something about it.

Now a second-year student at the University of Hong Kong Swire Institute of Marine Science (Swims), Karen's dream of helping animals has become concrete for the first time.

Working with fellow student Kevin Kwok Wing-hin, she recently spent 10 hours a day for 12 days on a boat on the Meikong River in Cambodia, trying to determine the number of dolphins there. Whenever a dolphin was sighted, she quickly recorded the location the environmental data. 'The sun was cruel and we got no shade to hide. It was like a permanent sauna,' said the 19-year-old. 'But we spotted 61 dolphins, almost 80 per cent of the whole population in the river. It's so worthwhile.'

The pair were among six Swims students who won sponsorship from Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF) for a marine mammal conservation trip to Cambodia.

The other four students joined a 13-day Marine Mammal Stranding Network, co-organised by the Fisheries Department of Cambodia, to obtain first-hand information on the status of marine mammal conservation in the area.

They conducted 30 interview surveys with local fishermen, and held three workshops providing basic education on marine mammal conservation, such as the difference between fish and cetaceans and measures to take when a marine mammal is found stranded or accidentally caught. Local fishermen said the knowledge was useful and found the workshops rewarding, according to the students.

Suzanne Gendron, Foundation Director of OPCF, said the significance of the trip emerged when the marine conservationists of the future realised saving marine life was not an isolated activity.

'Now with their first-hand experience they understand it's not practical just to ask the fishermen to stop grid-fishing. They need to come up with an alternative for them to make a living first,' Ms Gendron said.

The OPCF plans to expand its sponsorship to 10 projects this year, and Ms Gendron expressed enthusiasm for the student conservation trips.

'They will share their experiences with family and friends, and call attention to the cause naturally,' she said. 'They may even choose marine conservation causes as their life careers. An education chain is built up this way.'