Protecting river dolphins in South America

Geographical location:

Latin America/Caribbean > LAC General

Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Bolivia
Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Brazil
Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Colombia
Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Ecuador
Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Peru
Latin America/Caribbean > South America > Venezuela

WWF team looking for river dolphins. Colombia.
© WWF Colombia / María Ximena GALEANO


River dolphins are among the most endangered mammals. In South America, their habitats are often polluted or blocked by dams and they easily get caught in fishing nets.

WWF and its partners have conducted a survey of pink and grey river dolphins in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins - in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia - to gather more information on the status of the species and to develop conservation strategies that will preserve the species and its river habit.


Worldwide, 7 river dolphin species are known, 4 of which are found in Asia (mainly in the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, and Yangtze rivers, although the Yangtze is now considered to be extinct), and 3 live in South America in the Orinoco and Amazon river basins. All river dolphins are listed as vulnerable, threatened or endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red Book. While dolphin populations in Asia are very small and isolated, the South American species of the Amazon and Orinoco river basins are still observed in relatively frequently, although precise data are still lacking. IUCN lists Inia geoffrensis and Sotalia fluviatilis as vulnerable species and Inia boliviensis as endemic in the Bolivian Amazon river basin, with very little clear data available.

South American river dolphin populations are considered relatively stable, although threats to habitat and dolphin survival are on the rise. Large dam and other infrastructure projects at the Orinoco and Amazon river basins are partially fragmenting circulation of dolphins, and the extraction of gold and oil are contaminating water with consequences both for human health and biodiversity. Fisheries practices and nets result in bycatch and in some cases are directly targeting dolphins as bait. As predators at the top of the food chain, river dolphins have an important ecological function for freshwater ecosystems, and depend on habitat integrity and food availability. Some indications of over-fishing are affecting dolphin populations. The lack of monitoring and data collection limits our ability to assure that dolphin populations are safe and that adequate management measures are being applied.

Since 2000, the Omacha Foundation (local WWF partner in the Orinoco and Amazon river basins) developed a standardized methodology to determine river dolphin abundance, comparable between different rivers. Several technical organizations have been involved in the development of this methodology, including the Internationally Whaling Commission (IWC), and the Cetaceans Specialists Group of IUCN.

During 2006 and 2007, the “First Regional Census of South American River Dolphins” took place with support and participation of WWF, the Omacha Foundation (Colombia), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) (USA), Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) (UK), La Salle Foundation (Venezuela), and Saint Andrews University (Scotland). The goal of this effort has been to train a regional experts group in the standardized method while at the same time collect basic data on dolphin abundance in the Orinoco and Amazon rivers basins.

7 expeditions have been carried out to date on the following rivers: Meta (Colombia), Orinoco (Colombia and Venezuela), Cuyabeno, Yasuni, Napo and Lagarto (Ecuador), Pacaya, Samiria and Marañón (Peru), Javari (Brazil, Peru), a part of the Amazon.



By 2010, populations of South American river dolphin species are stabilized and 2 main threats have been reduced in the selected regions.

Specific objectives

- By 2009, the key stakeholders of at least 3 countries develop concerted actions for the conservation of river dolphins in South America.

- By 2009, the commercialization of carrion feeding catfish (Calophysus macropterus) caught by using river dolphins as bait and the hunting of river dolphins have been reduced by 50%.

- By 2010, at least 3 protected areas in South America incorporate specific criteria for fisheries management and non-lethal use of river dolphins in key freshwater ecosystem of the Orinoco and Amazon river basins.

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