River Dolphins: Conservation ambassadors of the Amazon | WWF
River Dolphins: Conservation ambassadors of the Amazon

Posted on 01 January 2011

Dolphins are not only some of the most gracious and charismatic animals on Earth, but are rapidly becoming effective conservation messengers.
The Amazon is home to three species of dolphins: the pink river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), the Bolivian river dolphin (Inia boliviensis) and the grey river dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis). All of which have been facing increasing threats during recent years. From direct attacks by fishermen who erroneously see them as competitors, to the imminent realization of large hydropower and other infrastructure projects, the healthy populations of South American river dolphins are threatened by an uncertain future.

This is why, with support of the WWF’s Living Amazon Initiative, a conservation coalition has embraced the challenge to ensure the wellbeing of South American river dolphins and the ecosystems they inhabit.

“South America is the last stronghold of river dolphins in the world. In places like Asia river dolphins face serious risks of extinction, and some of them are already considered to be extinct. We must take that as a direct and clear reference to what could happen here if we don´t tackle this issue in time”, says Saulo Usma, from WWF Colombia. Him, along with partners from the WWF Network, Wildlife Conservation Society, Fundacion Omacha and other organizations in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela have joined efforts with national authorities to promote a regional conservation approach towards saving these species, but most importantly to ensure the conservation of key aquatic habitats throughout the Orinoco and Amazon basins.

A regional conservation vision

The river dolphins have become the focus of a creative and integrated conservation approach. Not only a precise and groundbreaking censing methodology has been designed and standardized to assess their populations and actual numbers, but based on these figures, their related habitat needs and identified threats, further conservation progress has been made.

Between 2007 and 2010 over 5000 km of rivers were covered by the scientific team in charge of censing these species. This not only led to the most accurate dolphin population estimation to date, but also to building a regional network of dedicated specialists grouped under the South American River Dolphin Protected Area Network. On this ground, conservation planning tools have been developed, from sustainable fishing plans for Peruvian and Colombian lakes with high dolphin population density, to a Regional Action Plan for river dolphins with input from specialists and national governments’ representatives, which has already been presented in several international fora such as The World Meeting for the Conservation of Aquatic Mammals (Quebec, Canada), the IX Wildlife International for the Amazon and Latin America (Santa Cruz, Bolivia) and the XIV Work Meeting of Specialists on South American Aquatic Mammals (Florianopolis, Brasil).

A new ramsar site promoted by dolphins

Besides the species themselves, these efforts have led to identifying broader threats to conservation (such as mining, oil exploitation, over fishing, illicit crops, etc.), as well as key ecosystems which need to be protected. In this regard and under the framework of the Living Amazon Initiative, several efforts have been fostered to improve resource management in such protected areas as the Amacayacú Natural National Park in Colombia and the Gueppi Reserved Zone in Peru.

More importantly, thanks to the support of WWF Switzerland and WWF International, these efforts are contributing to the designation process of the Estrella Fluvial Inírida wetland (Río Negro headwaters, Colombia) as a new Ramsar Site, based on its importance as a river dolphin habitat, but overall as a key aquatic ecosystem within the Amazon – Orinoco transition area.

River Dolphins: Conservation ambassadors of the Amazon
© Fernando Turjillo/ Fundación Omacha