International protection for major dolphin sanctuary in northern Amazon
International recognition of this extraordinary area, which shelters one of the highest concentrations of river dolphins and supports many other species and indigenous communities, is the result of more than ten years of joint work between WWF-Colombia, the Omacha Foundation and the Ministry of Environment.
Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, announced the designation saying “this recognition promotes international cooperation for biodiversity conservation projects and contributes to the protection of this specific ecosystem.”
“Our goal is to declare at least five more of these ecosystems as Ramsar sites and to leave, at the end of this administration, 30 million hectares in protected áreas - equivalent to the size of the whole United Kingdom,” added President Santos.
The Tarapoto Lake system covers 40,000 hectares, creating an ecosystem with incredible levels of biodiversity, including more than 883 plant species, 244 bird species, 176 fish species, 30 reptile species, 201 mammal species and 57 amphibian species.
“This is an important achievement for the conservation of strategic freshwater ecosystems globally,” said Mary Lou Higgins, Director, WWF-Colombia. “It is also an opportunity to ensure critical habitat for priority species, such as the Amazon river dolphins.”
As Fernando Trujillo, Omacha Foundation Director, explains, Tarapoto functions as a "nursery" for the dolphins to rear their offspring. It is also a key habitat for threatened species like pirarucú, manatee, black caiman, and the jaguar. And a breeding site for fish supporting the livelihoods of the indigenous communities that inhabit the area.
However, this natural treasure faces potential threats from overfishing, timber extraction, poaching and uncontrolled tourism. This Ramsar designation creates a huge opportunity to reduce these threats through better territorial planning with local communities.
Unlike many other Ramsar locations, Tarapoto Lakes lies within an indigenous reserve. The 22 indigenous communities living there have relied on fish as a vital source of food for generations and, more recently, have built economic ties to other activities like tourism. Puerto Nariño, where one can easily spot river dolphins, is one of the most visited nature tourism destinations in the Colombian Amazon. While tourism generates income for the area’s economy, overfishing and unfettered tourism threaten to alter the balance of this natural treasure.
The Ramsar designation seeks to provide more alternatives for local communities and to consolidate the fisheries management process that WWF has been supporting alongside local fishermen to ensure responsible use of fish stocks. One of the great advantages of a Ramsar designation is the potential to increase international cooperation to fund conservation projects that are well aligned with the needs of the community. This designation was supported by the Ticuna, Yagua and Cocama indigenous communities.
“The designation of the Tarapoto Lakes as a Ramsar site is an opportunity to strengthen, protect, and conserve our natural, cultural, and social resources, keeping in mind that this process opens doors to project funding,” said Lilia Java, an indigenous leader in the area.