Brazil is the country with the highest biodiversity, and it’s also facing an alarming rate of extinction of species important to its biome. Wanting to learn more about this important topic, the Übersite Team talked to the President of the Ethics Committee for Animal Use in Research INPA – CEUA, Vera M. F. da Silva, about the precarious situation of the endangered pink dolphin. Check out the interview!
What is the main cause of death for pink dolphins and why are they being killed?
The pink dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) is a species endemic to the rivers of the Amazon Basin. They are the top predators in the food chain and essentially eat fish. Although, there are other aquatic predators in the rivers of the region, the pink dolphin has no natural predator. Their only real predator is man. These dolphins are killed for three reasons:
1. Interaction with fishing – when fishermen and dolphins aim for the same resources, the dolphins end up trapped in fishing nets, drowning or suffocating;
2. Direct capture – sometimes fishermen aim to capture these dolphins directly with nets and harpoons, killing them with a stick or a knife to be cut and used as bait when fishing for catfish (known in the Amazon as Piracatinga or Mota); and
3. Destruction of habitat – natural areas important for the survival of dolphins are actively being destroyed for construction of bars in the rivers for hydropower, irrigation, etc. These areas are also being compromised by heavy metal pollution, hydrocarbons and organochlorines.
The pink dolphin is in danger of extinction?
Yes. Since the beginning of the new millennium, the killing of pink dolphins has intensified in alarming proportions. The number of dolphins killed annually is much higher than what the population can replenish. It is important to remember that these dolphins have a long life span and are slow to reach sexual maturity. They also usually only have one baby dolphin per pregnancy, which lasts around 11 months. The period of lactation is about three years. Therefore, an adult female raising young will only give birth to a baby every three or four years. What’s more, a baby dolphin can’t survive without its mother for up to two years. Typically, a female does not begin to reproduce until seven years of age and males not until around 10 years. Thus, the removal of animals that have not yet reproduced causes profound changes in the natural population.
How can we help change the situation?
First of all, follow the laws that protect wildlife, including dolphins. Organizations like IBAMA, ICMBio, and Ministry of Fisheries, among others, monitor and protect these animals. It also helps to spread the word. It is important for people to know the importance of dolphins in the Amazonian aquatic ecosystem and learn how to appreciate their inherent value.
The pink dolphin is part of the culture and folklore of the Amazon, and we can’t let the commercial fisheries drive this charismatic, one-of-a-kind species towards extinction. We can’t let the pink dolphin turn into a legend.
Is there a campaign to protect this animal?
The Friends of Manatee Association (AMPA, in Portuguese) alongside the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), are currently working to launch a campaign to protect pink dolphins and combat such atrocities. To succeed in this endeavor, we must enlist the support of society in many different areas. Environmental education in schools of the coastal communities is critical to the campaign. So are lectures and fishing activities for the fishermen in the region to help promote greater understanding about the importance of these dolphins. These are some of the actions that we are already working on, though in very small scale due to limited financial resources and small staff.
What are the main characteristics of this species?
In English, Pink dolphin, describes the color of the skin of the animal when it emerges from the water showing the body. The local Indians, however, don’t have a name for the color pink, and so it is locally known as the red dolphin. The name pink dolphin was popularized in a documentary by Jacques Cousteau in the Amazon which translated terms from English into Portuguese literally, without taking into account the regional names (Caiman alligator and not to caimãm; giant otter and not ariranha; pink dolphin and not red as it is locally known).
Besides being a very curious animal, the dolphin is very well adapted to the rivers and flooded forests of the Amazon. Unlike marine dolphins, they have a flexible neck and can move their heads in all directions. Their bodies are also very flexible, allowing them to turn away from trees and branches in the flooded forest, when pursuing their prey. The small eyes are functional, both beneath and above the water. It is the only dolphin able to swim backwards and make body maneuvers in shallow and small areas. It is also the only one that features two types of teeth (the front teeth and the tapered type molariforme).
Males are much larger, more robust, and pinker than females. They fight over access to females in estrus during the breeding season. So far as we know, it’s the only species of aquatic mammal whose courtship behavior of males involves loading and displaying objects such as twigs, plants, and pieces of clay and sticks onto their bodies in order to display and “impress” females.
How is the capture of pink dolphins connected to fishing catfish?
Catfish require the bait of dead animals to be caught. The dolphin is a docile and friendly animal, easy to catch, and becomes an easy prey and zero cost to the fisherman. So, fisherman have been catching dolphin and then use their bodies as bait to catch catfish.
The increase in the human population and the demand for food led to this new way to make money, as a rich and easy way to catch catfish.
In addition to law enforcement (to protect wildlife), it would be important to work with communities, so together, researchers and fishermen, find an alternative bait.
What is important to the population, as a whole, to know and help preserve this animal?
It is necessary to produce quality educational materials with easy access for children, schools, fishing colonies, teaching about the pink dolphin, its role in maintaining the health of fish stocks and the balance of the aquatic ecosystem so that people value this mythical and legendary Brazilian character.
People are only aware that the pink dolphin comes to the surface to breathe. But being a very curious animal, they often approach ships and other man-made vessels. Often, they may sneak up on people unintentionally with their gentle and quiet swim. They may even hold the paddles or the keel of the canoes to play and accidentally scare the habitants, mainly women who row from their houses to fisheries. Because they eat fish, the pink dolphins are attracted by the fisheries, taking the food off of the nets and often stealing the fish and tearing the fishing gear. This makes the fisherman angry and vengeful, and they end up mistreating the animal. They end up with the fame of a bad and rogue animal, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
We also need to educate the population not to buy catfish or any fish that is caught with dolphin bait. We need to make the public aware that they are being misled when buying fish sold with fancy names (douradinha, Piratinga, etc.), which is actually catfish captured with dolphin bait.
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