People and River Dolphins

Amazon mythology is, of course, diverse and complex, but on the whole the stories and beliefs advocate protecting wildlife and plants from human harm. Amazon river dolphins or botos are right at the heart of many Amazonian myths and legends.

Amazon mythology is, of course, diverse and complex, but on the whole the stories and beliefs advocate protecting wildlife and plants from human harm. Amazon river dolphins or botos are right at the heart of many Amazonian myths and legends.

Botos are thought to be magical creatures with supernatural powers and this gives them a lot of protection from hunting because people generally believe it is bad luck to kill a boto. 

People believe that river dolphins are shape-shifters and are capable of taking human form. Others believe that river dolphins were people a long time ago and that each dolphin has the potential to turn back into a person at anytime. Similarly, some people believe that the spirits of drowned people enter the bodies of botos.

One of the most widespread traditional Amazon myths, describes a boto becoming a handsome young man at nightfall. He seduces a girl and then returns to the river in the morning to become a boto again. Certainly in some areas botos are blamed for unexplained pregnancies – the dolphins are believed to be the fathers of all children of unknown parentage. Other Amazonian stories include botos turning into beautiful men or women during the night and luring members of the opposite sex down into the river, never to return.

As a result of these many stories, it is generally taboo to eat river dolphin meat and so most local people wouldn’t consider hunting river dolphins. Some communities believe that a person responsible for killing a boto will never have success in hunting anything else and will always be punished. Sadly these beliefs don’t protect botos from settlers and commercial fishing operations (link to dolphins killed for bait in the mota fishery).

Most traditional Amazonian stories passed from generation to generation engender respect and protection for botos, perhaps due largely to the belief that they have magical, supernatural powers. These beliefs have an appealing nature and are important from a river dolphin protection perspective. In this regard, the Natütama Foundation has worked hard with the community in Puerto Nariño to ensure that their traditional wildlife stories are recorded and not forgotten. Many are now depicted in colourful wood carvings displayed at the Natütama Interpretation Centre.

Indigenous People and the Amazon

The Amazon supports the largest populations of the world’s surviving forest people, though most have been impacted by the modern world. While the people still use the forest and river for traditional hunting and gathering, most indigenous communities also grow crops (like bananas, manioc, and rice), use western goods (like metal pots, pans, and utensils), and make regular trips to towns and cities to bring foods and wares to market.

Sadly as more communities are lost forever, we are discovering how little we know of the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon basin and their relationship with the Amazonian environment. Indigenous people have an in-depth knowledge of the rainforest. Their knowledge of medicinal plants used for treating illness is unmatched and they have a great understanding of the ecology of the Amazon rainforest. For example, most of the knowledge needed to find potential products and set-up sustainable harvesting plans in the rainforest is part of indigenous culture as these people have lived in these regions for generations or millennia.

Often indigenous communities need help and encouragement to sustain their traditional cultures in the face of outside pressures. Preserving traditional knowledge of indigenous cultures concerning wildlife, medicinal plants and other knowledge about peoples relationship with the rainforest fauna and flora is of huge value to us all.

With this in mind it is becoming increasingly clear that promoting conservation strategies that encourage partnerships between indigenous communities and other groups including NGOs and Governments is extremely important. Indigenous people have both an ecological and spiritual tie to their Amazonian home and experience and knowledge unmatched by settlers and outsiders. Partners in the form of NGOs such as WDCS and Governments can provide important access to equipment, legal issues, managing ecotourism enterprises, marketing to visitors and so forth.

WDCS aims to work with NGOs in the Amazon region to forge a culture of conservation and preserve biodiversity through working with local communities on education, research, monitoring and management programmes in the Amazon region.

Case study:  People and River dolphins in Puerto Nariño, Colombia

Puerto Nariño is a riverside community in the Colombian Amazon, southern Colombia. It is home to indigenous Ticuna, Yagua and Cocama Indians who once lived entirely from hunting, fishing and farming, but now require monetary income for everyday essentials. As a result many exploit local resources for sale rather than subsistence, while commercial fishing and timber extraction have grown rapidly, with no effective management. So the situation in Puerto Nariño in the Colombian Amazon is representative of the situation throughout the Amazon Basin.

River dolphin guardians

In Puerto Nariño local people have effectively become guardians of river dolphins and other wildlife. This has developed through a long term and permanent conservation NGO presence and gradual building of community involvement in conservation and education.

In order to successfully motivate people to implement measures to protect wildlife and natural resources, they must first understand how their own families and communities will also benefit. In other words local people need to know how they themselves will benefit from their efforts to protect wildlife.

The benefits to local communities can be direct through local projects or indirect as their welfare is taken into account in the overall strategy. Local people need to be shown how they can gain far more from conserving and protecting wildlife and developing livelihoods which do not damage the long term viability of natural resources.

Most of the families in the Puerto Nariño area (and beyond) are touched by the ongoing Natütama programme – either through the monitoring and protection work, the education outreach work which spans the entire municipal school system, or through the special events programme including various themed workshops and Natütama week every June. All of these work programmes constantly reinforce the importance of natural resource protection and how this approach will benefit local communities and wildlife alike.