December 2010

Help us to save Bolivian River Dolphins!

Bolivia relies only on one species of fresh water dolphin, the Bufeo, which inhabits the Amazonia. Unfortunately every day, the habitat used by this species is being destroyed more and more.

Virginie Dichtel
Projects Abroad
Paris - France

Photo Rodrigo Quintana

The Bufeos come from a marine ancestor that penetrated into the fresh water rivers and then adapted to the same ones. It happened approximately 50,000 years ago.

The Bufeos, or Inia boliviensis, also known as pink river dolphins, are fresh water dolphins. Th ey are aquatic mammals, which spend all their life cycle inside water. It is the only cetacean species that exists in Bolivia. Th e distribution of this species in this country has been restricted because of more than 200 Km of “cachuelas” that spread from Guayaramerin in Bolivia to Porto Velho in Brazil. Th ese “cachuelas” or rapids are big rocky formations that have restricted the movements of the Bufeos and have maintained the populations into almost entirely Bolivian waters, although the river Itenez is shared by the border with Brazil.

The Bufeos have suff ered certain morphologic adjustments in order to adapt them into a very diff erent environment from which their ancestors come, much more restricted, as for space, and more turbid. In this aspect, these dolphins have developed a powerful sonar system using a melon (protuberance in his forehead) from which they emit a sound (similar to bats), which hits against solid objects and is returned to the animal across his jaw, achieving the identifi cation of things ahead (like a shoal of fish, a trunk etc.).

They possess small eyes, which are functional, apparently principally out of the water. Th eir cervical vertebrae are not fused which allows them to turn their head from one side to another and to get into the flooded forest and palisades of the rivers, maneuvering to go out of these without any diffi culty. On the other hand, their pectoral fi ns are big which helps them to rotate and allow the sharply changing of courses. According to Mariana Escobar-WW, Associated Researcher from Noel Kempff Museum of Natural History, the principal threat for this species is the degradation of his habitat: deforestation of the riparian forest, food source for the fi sh that live in the river; the pollution of the rivers with waste products from the mining industry and from the agricultural activities; also the fi shing nets, which are not detected by the dolphins’ sonar, where they can get caught causing suff ocation and eventually killing them (like us, they breathe atmospheric oxygen).

Photo Rodrigo Quintana

During the IX International Wildlife Management Congress for Latin America and Th e Amazonia, carried out in the city of Santa Cruz in May 2010, some information was received about the confi nement of pink river dolphins in the Pailas River, tributary of the Grande River. After the Congress, the Noel Kempff Museum of Natural History (NKMMNH) sent a letter to the departmental government of Santa Cruz, demonstrating their concern for this situation. Later, the general Direction of Biodiversity (DGB) from the Ministry of Environment and Water (MMAyA) requested two specialists in the species, Mariana Escobar-WW (NKMMNH) and Enzo Aliaga-Rossel (Institute of Ecology - IE), to carry out the inspection and to address the diagnosis of the situation. After having observed the general conditions of the area, the dolphins’ confinement in a limited area, the gradual decrease of the water level at the beginning of the dry season and a very probably food reduction, they considered it urgent to organize the movement of the animals.

Then, in close coordination between the Museum (NKMMNH), the IE and the government, they began to knock on doors collecting funds that would allow them to do a more profound diagnosis and to plan and perform the evacuation of the animals.

Later, they contacted Gas Trans Boliviano (GTB) (a YPFB corporation company) who demonstrated its interest in helping them in the economic and logistic part of the project. Also institutions, like WWF Bolivia, WDCS, Omacha of Colombia and the Fundación Estas Vivo, collaborated with funds that allowed them to advance in many aspects such as the purchase of materials, flights, trips into the field, and more.

The inspections of the field were initiated in May and finished with the rescue in August, 2010.

Photo Eduardo Osorio

This operation to save initially a dozen Bufeos mobilized hundreds of people, among those biologists, veterinarians, volunteers and authorities from the Government.

The arduous task of the rescue finished on August 29th, with a much better result from the first expected: They rescued 20 dolphins in total. The volunteers have promised that they will return to continue this project.

The group has been basically constituted to take forward this activity. Nevertheless, they held a workshop evaluating their work on September 16 and 17, where the development of the activity was analyzed.

Parallel to the planning of the activities of the rescue, the NKMMNH elaborated an investigation project on the Conservation of Bufeos (Inia boliviensis) for the basin of the Rio Grande, and presented it to the company GTB. The project was approved by this institution, and currently both organizations are in the process of signing an agreement for the beginning of the activities. The idea is to incorporate monitoring programs such as those created for other animals like the jaguars and other species that are found near the Bolivia-Brazil gas pipe lines.

Photo Eduardo Osorio

This project seeks to identify the current condition of conservation of the species in the above mentioned basin, to identify threats, and to generate bases for its conservation.

What can you do to help them?

The main message for the population of Bolivia is to appreciate this unique cetacean species for the country and to avoid adverse events which could have detrimental effects over this type of species. That people also try to measure and think of the positive scopes for development. People have to appreciate the Bufeos and be aware of their importance in the ecosystem as a biological controller of a river. The second important factor for the population is to learn how not to contaminate the waters that perform vital importance also for us as human beings. The bufeo are an endemic species, special to Bolivia. Therefore they should be given a high symbolic value which should later reflect in some way the conservation of an ecosystem. GTB has shown interest in conserving these animals (jaguars, bufeos and others) and has programs that have been carried out over the past 10 years. GTB also demonstrates initiative when it comes to researching diverse socio-environmental activities that are developing in areas of influence.

Photo Eduardo Osorio

For further information, please contact:
MSc. Mariana Escobar-WW
Associated Researcher MHNNKM
tel:. (3) 3371216 int 131
Santa Cruz – Bolivia

Rodrigo Quintana
Socio Environmental Manager
Gas TransBoliviano S.A
Tel:. (3)33520600 int. 4520
Santa Cruz – Bolivia

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