You can find dolphins in every single ocean on the planet, but did you know that in South America there are also two species of river dolphin?
Most people don’t know about these river dolphins partly because there are so few of them. One dolphin species, the Amazon River dolphin, or Boto, is visually striking; it stands out because of its unusual pink color and small eyes. However, despite its startlingly obvious hue, little is known about the numbers of Boto in the wild. This is in no small part because river dolphins throughout the world face increasing threats from pollution, dam construction, and fishing nets. Their numbers are dangerously dwindling. In 2007, another species of river dolphin, the Baiji in China, was declared extinct while others are listed as either endangered or threatened by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). These animals desperately need protection but with unknown population numbers it’s a challenge to construct a comprehensive protection program. Luckily, one organization in particular is approaching that challenge head on.
ProDelphinus, a Peruvian conservation organization and 2014 WCN Expo participant, recently launched a search for manatees and two species of freshwater river dolphins, literally to count as many individuals they could find that are endemic to the Amazon-Orinoco river basin. ProDelphinus concentrated their work in the Loreto and Ucayali region. Their goals were modest, but important: establish the number of manatees and river dolphins and raise awareness of their presence in the local population, encouraging locals to protect them.
Exemplifying community-based conservation, they surveyed local fishermen, asking if they had seen these species in their trips around the waterways. Fishermen are a traditionally ignored demographic but an important one as they see so much more of the river than anyone else. Concentrating specifically on river dolphins, they found that in eleven of the twelve ports where they conducted interviews, fishermen had seen both dolphin species and could tell the difference between the two. Unfortunately, these interactions between the fishermen and dolphins weren’t always pleasant. Many fishermen found themselves in direct conflict with the dolphins, mostly due to dolphins getting tangled in nets and reports of dolphins exhibiting aggression toward boats.
In the second part of their numbers survey ProDelphinus’s researchers attempted to get a population estimate by monitoring dolphin vocalizations. Using sophisticated equipment such as submerged echolocation-loggers, they pushed the boundaries of technology to ascertain if this was an effective way to determine dolphin population numbers.
Altogether, they found 12 pink river dolphins and 102 of their other river cousins. With their results in hand, ProDelphinus is hoping to work with the Peruvian government to develop a national conservation plan so that these rare and beautiful dolphins remain in the rivers where they belong.