In a remote area near Iquitos, Peru, a group of dedicated volunteers and local biologists are helping to inspire awareness for one of the Amazon River’s most charismatic species – the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis). With funding by The Dallas World Aquarium (DWA), this project has become one of most exciting in-situ programs in South America focusing on conservation of not only the Amazonian, but the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus) as well.
The DWA has had the opportunity to be involved with the Inter-agency/Oceanaria working group for manatees for many years. This group, which includes AZA institutions and manatee rescue organizations, works together to rescue and rehabilitate manatees in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. In February 2008, as a result of the affiliation with the I/O working group, DWA Director Daryl Richardson was contacted about the need for assistance in rescuing and rehabilitating four young Amazonian manatees. The young calves had been orphaned after the mothers were killed for their meat by local tribesmen. The DWA immediately sent much needed powdered milk, medical supplies and funds to pay for their care. The manatees were kept in a small pool at a private house but were soon moved to a larger site near Quistococha Lagoon, as the program quickly outgrew its first temporary quarters.
That initial involvement resulted in a united effort among the DWA and local agencies, such as Dirección Regional de la Producción de Loreto (DIREPRO), Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP) and resulted in the formation of ACOBIA-DWAzoo.
The Amazon Rescue Center not only rescues and rehabilitates orphaned or injured mammals, it also has an outstanding environmental education program that is the core of the conservation project. Outreach programs provided by the staff reach people that cannot visit the facility. Even when involved in the rescue of a manatee, which may include a multi-day trip by boat, the biologists take the time to meet with local residents and begin the first steps toward the development of environmental education.
Since its inception, more than 40,000 students from local schools, organizations and civic groups have learned about the importance of the conservation of Amazonian manatees and their environment. Students are given the opportunity to visit the center and observe the manatees first-hand. Although classrooms may be somewhat rustic, the eagerness to learn and the excitement of the children make up for what may be lacking in the physical conditions of the building. Students reach the facility by boat or bus and education programs include everything from puppet shows to PowerPoint presentations. The future of the Amazonian manatee is largely dependent on the younger generation. It is this portion of the project that will result in long-term effects for the future of the manatee through education.
The ACOBIA-DWAZoo center is gaining popularity both as an eco-tourist attraction and as a learning center where visitors can participate in conservation-in-action, helping to save endangered Amazonian manatees. Local hotels and restaurants have begun to support the project as well and promote the facility as a unique destination for visitors to Iquitos.
In addition to its work with Amazonian manatees, the ACOBIA-DWAzoo center has rescued, rehabilitated and/or released other endangered species, including Amazon river dolphins (Inia geoffrensis), giant river otters (Pteronura brasiliensis), red uakaris (Cacajao calvus), harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja), and jaguars (Panthera onca). The Amazon Rescue Center was recently selected as a World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) Conservation Project. In addition, the Amazon Rescue Center has been featured on the TV Series, Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild and Sky’s TV Series, Vet Adventures with Luke Gamble, a veterinarian from Dorset, England.
Since 2008, 24 manatees have been part of the program, but the success of the program was demonstrated when five manatees were released back into their natural habitat. On Earth Day 2011, these manatees were moved from the Amazon Rescue Center to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve (located 114 miles southwest of Iquitos, the reserve is the largest in Peru and second largest in the Amazon region) and placed in a holding pen where they were satellite-tagged. This intermediate step allowed for a staged introduction back into their natural environment in a protected area where their activities could be monitored prior to their permanent release. Over the remainder of the year, their movements, eating habits and social interactions were observed and documented. The manatees are now permanently released into their natural habitat and have adapted extremely well to their new environment – the first-time a successful reintroduction event has taken place inPeru.
Architectural plans for a permanent educational facility have been completed and plans are underway for future expansion of the Amazon Rescue Center. Earth Day for the DWA was exciting and very successful in 2011 and will be repeated again in 2012, when the next group of Amazonian manatees will be moved to the National Reserve for the initial step to their safe and permanent release.
For more information on this project, visit The Dallas World Aquarium’s website www.dwazoo.com/conservation/ and watch the manatee release video.
Daryl Richardson the Director of the Dallas World Aquarium
Note: In the United States, manatees are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.