Former dolphin hunter Roosevelt Rodríguez knows exactly what to show the European tourists crowding the docks of this port city on the Orinoco River. Five minutes by boat from shore, the animals are everywhere, their pink heads, long beaks and huge dorsal fins flashing in the sun as they break the water’s surface, their blowholes spraying the air with mist.
“Watch how those dolphins swim together,” Rodríguez, now an ecotourism guide, tells one of the tourists as he steers his motorboat under the towering canopy of rainforest trees on the river’s edge, where a group of seven, six-foot-long dolphins surfaces and dives in unison. “They are herding a school of fish as a team and hamming it up for us at the same time.”
The pink dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), a freshwater species known locally as the tonina, is a celebrity of this region in Colombia’s Vichada department. If tourists also come to see Indian villages perched on stilts at the edge of the rainforest and rare species like the South American river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) and the Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius), it is the playful, intelligent and gregarious dolphin that thrills them.
Locals, like Rodríguez, who once viewed the animal as a pest that robbed fish from fishermen’s nets, have fallen in love with it. School children adorn their classroom walls with murals of it; artisans carve statues of it; the mayor openly declares that the dolphin—and the ecotourism it brings—could brighten a future clouded by declines in the local food- and ornamental-fish industries. (See “Small but key Amazon industry in trouble”—EcoAméricas, Nov. ’05).
“The dolphin has become a symbol of the tremendous possibilities of ecotourism and the natural richness that God gave us,” says Luís Medina, the Puerto Carreño mayor. “It represents both conservation and its economic possibilities.”
Locals and international wildlife groups alike ascribe the new-found affection for the dolphin in large part to the Omacha Foundation, a non-profit group based in Bogotá that is made up mostly of biologists dedicated to the conservation of aquatic ecosystems and their fauna.
Since 1986 when the group first set up a field station at Puerto Nariño in the Colombian department of Amazonas and then opened another station near Puerto Carreño in 1995, the Omacha Foundation has carried out much of the most important research on the pink dolphin’s distribution, biology and behavior. It has proposed strategies to protect the dolphin from gold mining, deforestation, and dams—and carried out educational campaigns aimed at reducing attacks by fishermen on dolphins and instilling public passion for the animal.
Most importantly, it has found work for locals in dolphin promotion: in everything from dolphin-watching trips for tourists to the production of dolphin-oriented handicrafts and the publication of local Indian tales, which reverently portray the dolphin as a fellow human being.
“The Omacha Foundation is unique among dolphin-conservation societies of the world in stressing both the biological importance of the animal and its cultural and economic value,” says José Saulo Usma, coordinator for freshwater ecosystems at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Colombia, which underwrites some of the Foundation’s programs. “It sees the dolphin in its total context and converts the local population into the animal’s allies.”
Omacha scientists, who also work to protect threatened species such as the manatee (Trichechus spp.) and the side-neck turtle (Podocnemis spp.), say that while important in and of itself, the pink dolphin also acts as a “flagship species.” It does so by generating a spirit of conservation towards aquatic ecosystems generally.
The dolphin, which entered the Amazon from the ocean millions of years ago, can play that role thanks in part to its profoundly anthropomorphic qualities—its large brain mass, strong family ties and sophisticated play and communication.
Fisherman throughout the rainforest—as in coastal regions—tell of companions pushed to shore by dolphins after boating accidents; the region’s many Indian tribes speak of them as transformed human beings living in submerged, river-bottom cities.
Fernando Trujillo, the foundation’s director and one of the world’s experts on the four existing species of river dolphin, says they are the ideal emblem.
“The pink dolphin provides enormous advantages as a conservation symbol,” Trujillo says. “It is the maximum predator in the rivers, lakes and flooded forests of the region, essential for keeping the population of fish communities in equilibrium. And it is an extremely charismatic animal that is easy for people to identify with; it has a social structure, intelligence and vocal form of communication similar to that of humans. So it is easy to get people to also protect the dolphin’s aquatic environment—far easier, for example, than if we had picked as our symbol some weird beast like the anaconda.”
Still the freshwater dolphin needs help. In China, there are fewer than 30 Yangtze River dolphins (Lipotes vexillifer) remaining from a population estimated at as many as 6,000 in the 1950s—the victims of pollution, dams and boat traffic. In India and Pakistan, the number of Ganges River dolphins (Platanista gangetica) has declined to 1,200, while the population of Indus River dolphins (Platanista minor) has fallen below 500 due to similar causes.
In Latin America, the pink dolphin, though abundant, is potentially imperiled. There are only an estimated 15,000 of them in the Orinoco and Amazon basins of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Gland, Switzerland, ranks them as “vulnerable,” as opposed to cousins of theirs that are considered “endangered” in India and Pakistan and “critically endangered” in China.
But with myriad threats confronting the animal, conservationists say they must redouble their efforts to better understand the animal’s biology, behavior and population as a means to devise more effective conservation strategies before it is too late.
“There is so much that we don’t know about the river dolphin, its genetics, reproduction, life cycle and distribution—Information that is crucial for influencing government development policy and working with local communities,” Trujillo says. “To be honest, beyond some educated guesswork, we don’t even know how many dolphins we have in Latin America.”
Trujillo, who is also this year’s president of the Latin American Society of Aquatic Mammals Specialists (Solamac), a nonprofit group that links scientists in the state and private sectors, seeks to remedy that problem. From his position at Omacha Foundation, he has organized government agencies and conservation groups throughout the Amazon and Orinoco regions to launch the first population study using a new, standardized, mathematical model. The study will begin in March.
In Brazil, biologists at the state-run National Institute of Amazonian Research (Inpa) have been capturing dolphins, branding them with liquid nitrogen and outfitting them with radio-tracking tags.
Aside from answering scientific questions about the dolphin, the Brazilian studies also are being used by government planners to evaluate the possible impacts of new hydroelectric plants proposed for the country’s Amazon region.
Veterinarians at the Omacha Foundation’s Puerto Nariño station have autopsied dead dolphins to help determine how the animals are affected by local environmental threats such as mercury pollution from mining. Trujillo says they want to understand the dolphins’ biological response to contaminants in order to propose appropriate mitigation strategies.
The Foundation also has studied dolphin biology and reproduction in the Meta River, a 530-mile (850-km) tributary of the Orinoco that serves as the principal corridor for trade with Venezuela.
Last month, Colombia’s National Highways Administration opened a bidding process for dredging and dock construction along the river in order to increase shipping of agricultural products, coke and steel.
Trujillo fears that the US$100 million project will alter the flood pulses in the river that play a key role in maintaining the wetlands and flooded forests where dolphins feed. “We must have concrete information available to government authorities so we can influence this project, both by getting them to modify some of the planned alterations to the river and by setting up special conservation areas for the dolphin along the route,” Trujillo says.
But some of the most effective strategies for dolphin protection involve local people and their communities, experts say.
Roosevelt Rodríguez, the ecotourism guide, recalls that while working as a fisherman in the early 1990s, he would shoot the dolphins he found stealing catfish from his nets. He also remembers killing them, slitting their bellies open and using their decomposing bodies as bait for a delicious fish known as the mapurito (Calophysus macropterus).
“We would leave the dolphin carcass in the river and wait as the smell attracted schools of mapurito into its body,” he says. “Then we would scoop up lots of fish and put them on our boat for the ride home. We would even use the extra fat from the dolphin as expectorant for our kids.”
Conditions for conservation
Then the Omacha Foundation began work in the area. It taught dolphin biology, behavior and mythology in schools; it helped craftsmen market dolphin paintings and statues, and it trained and organized fishermen as guides in a dolphin-oriented ecotourism cooperative known as the Orinoco Expedition.
Most important, it sought to prove to fishermen that their suspicions about the relationship between dolphins and dwindling fish harvests were wrong. So it paid them to monitor dolphin behavior and fish catches on the river, day and night. The study eventually showed that the dolphins were largely innocent, and that a full 95% of the reduction was caused by overfishing.
“Omacha taught people who viewed the dolphin as an enemy to see it as harmless, a source of more income than fishing and part of our patrimony,” Rodríguez says. “When the foundation arrived in the mid-90s, we didn’t want them. But they’ve helped us, and they’ve won us over. Now everyone protects the dolphin.”
To consolidate the gains, the foundation has been teaching locals how to develop environmental management plans and regulations that would protect dolphins and other threatened species at a 3,200-acre (1,300-ha) reserve that it owns near Puerto Carreño, called Bojonawi. The reserve includes a lake that is a natural breeding ground for dolphins as well as crocodiles, turtles and 300 species of fish.
Working with university students and seasoned investigators, the fishermen observe how species interact. They also research agro-forestry resources in the surrounding jungle, such as seeds and fruits, that could serve as alternative sources of income when fish populations are down. The goal is to convert the findings into policy at the municipal level.
Passing on the knowledge
Similar work is being done at the foundation’s station at Puerto Nariño. But there, the foundation also has provided scientific and technical support to a local non-governmental group, called Natütama, which has built an exhibition and educational center where elders from the Tikuna Indian tribe teach tribal youngsters about dolphins and other species. The work is important because many of the youngsters have lost their tribal traditions.
“Fernando Trujillo and the Foundation have created the perfect marriage of scientific research, education and local outreach in the defense of the dolphin and its ecosystems,” says Nicola Hodgins, international project coordinator for the U.K.-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, a nonprofit funder of some Omacha projects. “They have brought environmental education to areas where it was unknown and engaged local labor. They have generated pride in the dolphin and its setting so protection will last into the future.”
None of which guarantees against setbacks, however. Threats to the animal are everywhere. Most recently, for example, the foundation has launched another campaign targeting fishermen who slaughter dolphins as bait for the mapurito—this time on the Brazilian side of the border.
The Brazilian fishermen catch mapuritos to fill a gap in the Colombian fish market left by dwindling catfish harvests. In the process, they have slaughtered dozens if not hundreds of dolphins. So Trujillo and the foundation have been distributing posters on both sides of the border warning that killing dolphins is illegal, working with Brazilian authorities to identify and arrest violators, and warning supermarkets in Colombia not to buy mapuritos from Brazil. He says that if supermarkets don’t listen, he will launch a boycott campaign.
“Unfortunately, the threats to the river dolphin are not going away any time soon,” he says.
- Steve Ambrus