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Guardians of the Amazon: protecting the endangered river dolphins

Ali Wood

Ali Wood

Ali is WDC's education projects coordinator. She is the editor of Splash! and KIDZONE, our magazine and website for young supporters.

In my last blog, I shared the devastating impact of the climate crisis on the Amazon and the river dolphins who call it home. But that’s not the only threat facing these remarkable beings. As human populations continue to transform rivers and pollute waters to serve our own needs, the future for these dolphins is looking particularly bleak. So today, I want to tell you how we’re working to ensure their survival by supporting the communities that live alongside them.

 

A precarious existence

River dolphins are among the most seriously endangered of all dolphin species. They live in freshwater river systems, where space is far more limited than in the ocean, plus they live alongside millions of people who compete for the same natural resources. This growing human presence is taking its toll on one species: Amazon River dolphins, also known as botos.

Activities such as fishing, the creation of dams, and habitat destruction are on the rise and illegal gold mining poses a significant threat. The mining process relies on mercury to extract the gold, leading to alarming mercury buildup in these top predators, causing adverse health effects and even death. But that’s not all. Since the mid-1990s, thousands of botos have been hunted to provide bait to catch meat-eating fish called mota or piracatinga. In some areas, these activities have wiped out half of the botos leaving many populations severely endangered. Quite simply, these magnificent pink dolphins do not have anywhere else to go.

Amazon River dolphin (Boto)
In Amazonian folklore and culture, botos live in magical, underwater kingdoms and have supernatural powers. © Dr Fernando Trujillo

If we don’t protect them, their populations will continue to decline, ultimately leading them to extinction. To end the deliberate killing and to reduce entanglement in fishing gear, we need cooperation and understanding from the people who share their rainforest home. This is why we’ve built partnerships in the Amazon rainforest of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, working with amazing people and their projects to protect and save botos and their habitat. These pink dolphins and Indigenous communities live together; their lives and futures are intertwined, and local families are perfectly placed to become river dolphin guardians.

There’s a well-known quote by Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum that says, ‘We will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.’ In this vein, we’re supporting projects that inspire these communities to understand the ecological importance of botos and their habitats, so they too will protect them.

Boto in flooded forest
© Fernando Trujillo

Can you help protect river dolphins from extinction?

Reviving projects

The pandemic hit Amazon communities hard, and now they need our support to revive their education and wildlife conservation activities. One of the conservation projects we’re supporting is ‘Natütama’ in Puerto Nariño, a remote town in the Colombian Amazon where Ticuna, Cocama, and Yagua Indigenous communities share their home with a variety of wildlife, including Amazon River dolphins. The Natütama Foundation was created by three women - a geographer, an ecologist, and a biologist - but nearly all the day-to-day running of the education and wildlife monitoring programmes is carried out by 30 Indigenous people in the Puerto Nariño area.

The incredible Natutama team.
The incredible Natütama team. © Natutama

Each year, around 8,000 tourists embark on a boat journey to the Natütama visitor centre since there are no roads to Puerto Narino, and therefore no cars. Natütama means ‘everything under the water’ in the Ticuna language, and when visitors arrive, they are treated to a unique guided tour of the underwater world of the Amazon flooded forest and river beaches. They learn about the secret underwater lives of river dolphins, manatees, caiman, giant otters, turtles, anacondas, and giant freshwater fish and the important roles wild creatures play in Ticuna culture and legends.

Expanding outreach

Natütama’s Ticuna educators regularly visit schools and work with fishers and hunters to reduce threats to wildlife and conserve the Amazon ecosystem for future generations, both human and wildlife. The highlight of the year is the Natütama Week celebrations. In 2022, 400 children and 100 adults took part in activities related to environmental themes including climate change. They made masks and costumes for a carnival procession through the town, put on a puppet show, and took part in games, painting and storytelling sessions.

Natutama Week procession
Natutama Week prosession. Children wearing masks and holding up cut outs of Amazon River dolphins

People of all ages come together during Natütama Week to celebrate the animals they share their home with. © Natutama

This year, Natütama is training new educators from smaller surrounding communities to expand their outreach. They aim to teach children about the challenges and benefits of protecting their local endangered wildlife and habitats. All children are taken on a river field trip in a dugout canoe to the Natütama Centre, hopefully spotting river dolphins along the way. Here they enjoy an interpreted tour of the exhibitions, listen to traditional stories and legends, and take part in arts and crafts, drama activities, and games. Ticuna educators aim to foster love and pride among the children for their traditional cultural stories featuring rainforest plants and animals, which have been passed down from their elders.

Children visiting the Natutama centre are taken out on a field trip to spot river dolphins
Children at the Natutama centre holding their drawing of the animals that live in their local area

Children are given the opportunity to learn about the importance of protecting wildlife, including river dolphins. © Natutama

Future preservation

The Amazon is home to approximately one in 10 known species on Earth and is one of our planet’s lungs. Natütama is helping local people to feel a sense of guardianship for the species that are essential to the future of this ecosystem and in turn our world. We are supporting this project because inspiring children to be the wildlife guardians of the future is key. They are the decision-makers of tomorrow and have a huge influence on their families’ behaviours and choices today. We believe that encouraging wildlife-friendly approaches to everyday life and future plans will protect the environment and wildlife that we all depend on.

Child at the Natutama centre holding her drawing of an Amazon River dolphin
Through education comes appreciation. © Natutama

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will protect river dolphins.