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Although a big smile is one of their most unique features, pink river dolphins face an increasingly uncertain future. Water pollution, dams construction and poaching – either targeted or as bycatch -, are the most serious threats to these amazing creatures that play a key role along their rivers. Tackling these threats is made even more difficult by a lack of data about the population status and behavior of the dolphins.
- For the first time, scientists placed transmitters on eight pink river dolphins in Peru
- This region-wide initiative will help address threats to Amazon rivers and its species
Iquitos, September 24. Although a big smile is one of their most unique features, pink river dolphins face an increasingly uncertain future. Water pollution, dams construction and poaching – either targeted or as bycatch -, are the most serious threats to these amazing creatures that play a key role along their rivers. Tackling these threats is made even more difficult by a lack of data about the population status and behavior of the dolphins.
“Dolphins are like jaguars in the forest. As top predators, their population status is an indicator of the health of the rivers and ecosystems they inhabit. If the dolphins are doing well, all the other local species will also thrive,” states Biologist Jose Luis Mena, WWF Peru’s Science Director.
Therefore, to further know about the population status of this species, a scientific expedition aimed to install satellite transmitters on pink river dolphins, was recently carried out, for the first time, in Peru. A team of biologists, vets and geographers went deep into the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in Loreto (Peru’s northern Amazon), which is considered one of the places with the highest density of freshwater dolphins in the globe.
Together with local dwellers of the 20 de Enero Community, the team led by WWF and its local partner ProDelphinus traveled along the Yanayacu Pucate river in pursuit of the pink river dolphin (Inia Geoffrensis). “After just a couple of hours, we were able to safely capture, study and place transmitters on three male and one female dolphins,” added Mena.
With a little patience and a lot of care, local dwellers guided by scientists helped enclose dolphins with a fishing net and lead them onto stretchers outside of the water. Once done, the examination process began, including blood and tissue sampling that will provide information about their health and diet. Finally, transmitters were placed, and the information systematization began.
“We follow a strict protocol that prioritizes the welfare of the animals and its quick release back into the water, with the least possible discomfort,” claims Biologist Elizabeth Campbell, ProDelphinus Associate Researcher. “All the dolphins we tagged were safely released back into the river and we will now be able to see what they are doing on a daily basis, how they use their habitat, and even how climate change is impacting their home and behaviour.”
According to experts, dolphins monitoring not only addresses the urgent need to conserve this amazing species, but also provides vital information for the conservation of freshwater ecosystems. Dolphins travel long distances along large rivers and their tributaries. Thus, while learning about their behavior, we can also get first-hand information about their habitat’s conditions, threats and conservation options, even as an input for decision-making processes by governments.
This information is particularly important nowadays, in times where Amazon rivers face rampant pressures. For instance, along the basins of the Huallaga and Marañon rivers (area of the ongoing dolphin’s study) several hydropower projects are planned. Moreover, the so-called Amazon Waterway, which license has been already granted, aims to facilitate river transportation in circa 2,500 km along the aforementioned basins and through the Ucayali river (three main basins countrywide); however, it lacks thorough technical studies about the potential impacts its construction can cause. Therefore, it is crucial to understand these rivers dynamics, the biodiversity and resources in them, and how to ensure their long-term continuity.
Science and technology leading the way together
Dolphins monitoring is part of a comprehensive science and conservation strategy which WWF has been advancing during the past years. “With the four dolphins tagged in Pacaya Samiria and another four in the Huallaga river, we will be able to compare how dolphins behave in a safe and healthy environment, such as a protected area (which is also one of the country’s first Ramsar sites), with another area suffering from human pressures,” said Mena.
The expedition in Peru is part of a regional initiative led by WWF with local partners in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, which aims to tag 50 dolphins to design effective strategies that ensure healthy and free rivers throughout the entire Amazon. So far, almost 20 have been tagged across the region.
This is complemented with one of the most groundbreaking techniques for biodiversity research: environmental DNA. During this and other expeditions in the area, WWF’s team has been taking small water samples from different rivers and streams visited. Afterwards, thanks to molecular techniques, scientists have identified DNA traces from species present in the area. “With a much lower investment of time and money compared to making a detailed biological inventory, environmental DNA allows us to have a better idea of the biological diversity in situ. We have over 200 vertebrate species registered in the study area, which sheds light on the high conservation value of these rivers,” concludes Mena.
Assisting the survival of other river dolphin species
The pink dolphin is the most iconic species of river dolphin, and it also holds the largest population worldwide; but is critical to know more about it to ensure its conservation.
Species such as the Yangtze River Dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) are considered to be extinct, while many other species range in populations of hundreds or even just dozens. That's why this historic initiative could also help efforts to save even more endangered river doplhin species around the world. A lack of data on movements and behaviour is one of the challenges with all the species, so this successful satellite tagging could provide WWF and partners in other regions with a new way to monitor dolphins.
Nowadays, science provide us with better tools to foster these species survival. However, everyone must play its part – the private sector, authorities and local population – in order to ensure this iconic species remains as the friendly face representing the wealth of Amazon rivers to the eyes of the world.