They’re smart, rare, sociable and an incredibly coveted sighting for eco-tourists and wildlife lovers. But Amazon river dolphins are teetering on the brink of extinction as a five-year fishing moratorium has just expired, leaving them vulnerable to poachers.
These playful mammals, which are sometimes pink, used to be abundant in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. But their rotting fatty blubber is irresistible to piracatinga, a kind of catfish. Poachers illegally kill the dolphins for bait to catch piracatinga.
In January 2015, then-President Dilma Rousseff’s administration put a five-year moratorium on piracatinga fishing in order to protect the dolphins. But current President Jair Bolsonaro — notoriously unfriendly to the Amazon ecosystem — seems disinclined to extend the ban.
“I believe [the lack of a moratorium] could make them extinct,” said Vera da Silva, a researcher for INPA. “Not all the objectives of the moratorium were fulfilled, therefore the moratorium must be extended.”
The Amazon river dolphin is the world’s largest freshwater dolphin, growing to about 8 feet in length. The dolphins use echolocation to hunt murky Amazon pools for turtles, fish and freshwater crabs. Similar creatures live in other rivers of South America and Asia, but they all face threats from humans. In 2007, China’s Yangtze River dolphin was pronounced extinct due to pollution, habitat degradation and overfishing.
“They are very special creatures,” Natanael dos Santos said of the Amazon river dolphin. Dos Santos works as a guide at Brazil’s Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development. “They are extremely intelligent and can display a complex set of behaviors, even like humans.”
Fishing is only one threat the Amazon river dolphins face. Hydroelectric dams and mercury poisoning from gold mining operations have also reduced their population. Marcelo Oliveira, a conservation specialist at World Wildlife Fund Brazil (WWF), urges stronger community engagement with fishermen in the Amazon basin. “Extending the moratorium could be a way to protect the dolphins, alternative baits could be a way, but we need to have a balance between development and biodiversity conservation,” Oliveira said. “It’s not a fight between the two. If communities are involved in conservation, the dolphins will be safer.”
Image via Gregory Smith