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A promise to the river dolphins of Peru

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 the heart of the Amazon, two species of dolphins and their habitats are facing possible extinction. But it’s not too late. To secure their future, we’re supporting our partner organisation Solinia, to inspire children and local fishing communities to protect the awesome beings who share their rainforest home.

Situated deep within the Peruvian Amazon jungle, Iquitos is thousands of kilometres from the ocean and can only be reached by air or river due to the lack of roads. It’s here that Cédric Gilleman founded Solinia in 2012 to protect the Sotalia and pink bufeo dolphins who live in the mighty Amazon River. Locally, these dolphins are known as ‘bufeos negros’ and ‘bufeos colorados’, or simply grey dolphins and pink dolphins.

Solinia map
Amazon river

The people of Iquitos need the Amazon, and the Amazon needs river dolphins.

Dolphins like none other

Sotalia dolphins are small, about 1.5 metres in length, and resemble miniature oceanic bottlenose dolphins. They have muted tones of blues and greys on their bodies and much lighter shades of ivory, grey or pink on their bellies. The pink bufeo, or Amazon River dolphin, is much bigger, ranging between 2.2 to 2.8 metres long. This unique species differs significantly from marine dolphins, possessing distinct physical features that are well-suited for their life in rainforest rivers and lakes. Their flexible necks allow them to explore their underwater world from every angle, their long, narrow beaks and lack of a pronounced dorsal fin enable them to swim among submerged trees and shrubs of the flooded rainforest, and their broad paddle-shaped flippers mean they swim upside down, on their sides, and even backwards. Bufeos are truly remarkable beings that have evolved to thrive in the murky rivers and flooded forests they call home.

Tucuxi © Fernando Trujillo/WDC
Amazon river dolphin with head above water

Sotalia dolphin (left) and the pink bufeos dolphin (right). © Fernando Trujillo/WDC

People in Iquitos depend on the river for their livelihoods, and as top predators in this ecosystem, these dolphins play vital roles in keeping it healthy. But tragically, both species are endangered due to the impact of human activities. Mercury poisoning from gold mining, deliberate killing for fishing bait, habitat destruction and climate degradation are causing their numbers to decline. And if the current trend continues, they will become critically endangered and ultimately extinct.

Scientists investigating the deaths of 155 dead river dolphins in the Amazon
Last summer, 155 Amazon River dolphins died suddenly due to increasing water temperatures as a result of climate breakdown © Miguel Monteiro, Mamiraua Institute

Stewards of the future

To prevent this catastrophic outcome, we need to provide more protection. It’s crucial to educate children and build an understanding among this next generation of decision makers. We must teach them about the incredible lives of river dolphins, the unique and threatened rainforest habitats they live in and how human activities are killing them.

Botos leaping in the Amazon river

Can you help protect these unique dolphins?

Alongside his small team, Cédric works tirelessly to do just that. By offering conservation days free of charge in primary schools, Solinia’s educators are giving children the opportunity to learn about local wildlife, become interested in the incredible ecosystem on their doorstep and be aware of human impact.

Cédric Gilleman teaching children about river dolphins
Cédric and his team teach the children fascinating facts about the dolphins that live alongside them.

Solinia’s educators organise activities for children which include arts and crafts, singing, dancing, and storytime, and the children love making grey and pink origami dolphins to show the differences between them.

Pink river dolphin origami
School child making origami river dolphin

Solinia's colourful and entertaining visits are very popular with the children.

A promise of protection

The Solinia team have also created a story set in Iquitos which they perform for the children. The story features two river dolphins, one grey and one pink, who talk to animals they meet along the river including a hummingbird, a fish, an iguana and a monkey, and explain the problems they face. Realising they can’t tackle the challenges alone, the dolphins approach some children on the river bank to ask them for help. The dolphins tell the children about the damage people are causing and ask them if they would help persuade people to take more care of the wildlife and environment. The children make a promise to the river dolphins that they will do better and take action to help them.

School children in Peru making a promise to protect river dolphins
School children in Peru making a promise to protect river dolphins

Creating conservationists of tomorrow.

Each workshop concludes with the children being asked if they would like to make a promise to protect river dolphins and their ecosystems.

This story encourages children to notice problems such as plastic litter in the river, chemical and noise pollution, and harmful fishing practices and encourages everyone to discuss and explore ways they and their friends and families can help reduce these threats and protect local wildlife.

Children who participated in the Solinia programme with their certificates
Each child who takes part in the Solinia programme is awarded a certificate.

Most children living in Iquitos have not had the chance to see river dolphins as they do not spend much time on the river. Plus, the national curriculum is created in Lima, one of the driest capital cities in the world, and it lacks content exploring the wet and humid Amazon environment and its wildlife. Solinia’s education programme fills this gap and fosters a lifelong sense of stewardship.

This impact was demonstrated when Cédric visited a university to recruit volunteers for Solinia. Among the eager students was one who had attended a Solinia workshop in primary school. She was inspired to pursue environmental studies and now wants to ignite similar passion among other children.

Cédric Gilleman from Solinia teaching students at a university to make a promise to the river dolphins
Cédric Gilleman with university students

Cedric's meeting with a university student who once attended a Solinia workshop in primary school marked a full-circle moment.

Let’s open the flood gates

With support from WDC, Solinia’s education programme has already reached more than 12,000 children. Our ambition is to expand the programme into secondary schools in Iquitos and to more riverside communities outside the city. Solinia’s team already travels to some river communities – the journey can take several days to complete by boat - and we’re keen to help them expand this even further so that children living in more isolated communities can learn about the important role dolphins play in maintaining river ecosystems and fisheries, and can feel motivated to help protect them.

We’re very proud of Solinia’s achievements and we will continue to support their efforts to expand the team, increase the scope of their education outreach programme, and strengthen their role as river dolphin guardians in the Peruvian Amazon.

Please help us today with a donation

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