Bolivian River Dolphins - Bolivia
Bolivia has its very own river dolphin species (Inia boliviensis), locally known as 'bufeos'.
The bufeos are very special dolphins; they are rare and only found in the upper Madeira river basin (Bolivia). They are also Bolivia's only dolphin species as it is a land-locked country. Their limited distribution makes them relatively rare; the total population size for the Bolivian river dolphin is low compared to the Amazon river dolphin which has a much larger range in South America. The Bolivian river dolphin is restricted to rivers in Bolivia and is vulnerable to many local (man-made) threats and also natural disasters and global climate change. It is critical that these dolphins are protected properly in Bolivia as they are simply not found anywhere else.
The picture shows where Bolivia is in South America and the map shows the known distribution of river dolphins in Bolivia.
The upper Madeira river basin in Bolivia is the Amazon's largest tributary; it flows northwards from Bolivia to Brazil. This river drains almost all of the Bolivian Amazon region (66% of Bolivia) The Teotonio Rapids are a series of powerful waterfalls and rapids stretching over a 400km stretch of river on the Bolivian-Brazilian border. They act as a natural barrier to river dolphin movements as the bufeos cannot swim past them in either direction. The Bolivian river dolphin has been reproductively isolated from the Amazon river dolphin for more than 3 million years and has evolved independently into a separate species. Researchers only discovered this in recent years; the separate species was confirmed by IUCN in 2012.
WDC is concerned about the future for Bolivian river dolphins and is actively working with local partners to improve bufeo protection and conservation in Bolivia. Bolivia does not currently have laws to explicitly protect the bufeos or protected areas set aside for them. We urgently need to address the threats these river dolphins face, including deliberate killing and entanglement in fishing nets. There is a pressing need to work with local communities in the Bolivian Amazon to raise awareness and concern for the dolphins' long term survival. Long term education and outreach programmes will help share and exchange knowledge with communities about the bufeos and the reasons why it is important to protect them and their fresh water habitats.
WDC is working with Dr Enzo Aliaga-Rossel, a Bolivian river dolphin expert, and his colleague Luis Guizada, also a biologist with a special interest in bufeos. Their efforts are focussed in the Beni Department (or region) northeastern Bolivia. The Beni is home to the largest number of Bolivian river dolphins; the region is largely rainforest, criss crossed by a large number of Amazon tributary rivers; it is close to the equator and very wet and humid for most of the year; it floods seasonally and the bufeos are able to enter the flooded forest.
Many of the threats facing river dolphins elsewhere in South America are a problem in Bolivia too; including deliberate killing. In some areas of the Bolivian Amazon there is a perception that the bufeos compete with people for their essential fish resources. This perception results in friction between people and bufeos; people then injure or even kill bufeos. In some areas, local people believe that bufeo fat has medicinal value for curing respiratory problems and disease; this provides further incentive to kill bufeos, or at least not release those found entangled in nets. In the north, where the powerful waterfalls are located, the Government has plans to build dams and hydropower stations. Unfortunately, such huge construction projects create further threats to wildlife and local people including pollution and disruption. When dams become operational, they alter and disrupt the natural seasonal flow of river water and create barriers to fish migration and other natural cycles. Natural habitats for large aquatic wild animals such as bufeos are degraded and lost.
Enzo and Luis are working hard to set up long term projects in the Beni region of Bolivia, including Trinidad City, the capital of Beni. Trinidad is surrounded by rivers, lakes and lagoons and there are some river-based tours available for visitors. It is close to the equator and so the climate is tropical and humid all year round. Enzo ahas been building links with individuals and authorities in Trinidad, encouraging them to promote the Bolivian river dolphin as an 'emblem' or 'symbol' for fresh water conservation in Bolivia. They are also keen to support a newly defined protected area, 'Ibare-Mamore'. This protected area includes a stretch of river and so there is potential to promote bufeo protection here. Enzo plans to work with local tour companies to finalise a set of guidelines for bufeoo watching in Bolivia. The guidelines need to ensure disturbance is minimised and companies to make sure the tours are educational. Enzo has also worked with Bolivian artists and education experts to develop some educational materials about bufeos which they are using to run a series of educational workshops for children.
Enzo and Luis have also started working with local communities in a town called 'Baures', in the remote north of the Beni department, close to the Ibare River. Enzo was invited by a community in Baures to come and investigate the bufeos that live there. The community wants to learn more about the bufeos they share their homes and lives with. They are curious to know how many animals there are and the threats they face. They also want to understand whether bufeo watching opportunities might exist in their area. This is a good opportunity for conservationists to work with a community, and to exchange knowledge about the dolphins and their habitat. We hope that this project will be a step towards encouraging the community to protect the dolphins and other natural resources within a culture of conservation. We will also examine with the community and local government the possibility of river dolphin watching opportunities in the region. Enzo and Luis are running a series of workshops here to exchange information with the community and learn more about the bufeos.
WDC partnered Bolivian experts, Enzo Aliaga-Rossel and Mariana Escobar in a dramatic rescue to save the lives of a large group of trapped bufeos. There were adults (male and females) juveniles and even young calves trapped in a small river which had been cut off from the main flow. It appeared that the bufeos had simply been caught out and accidentally trapped, their plight was life threatening for the whole group. Flash flooding had caused the mouth of the small river to become completely blocked by sediment in a very short amount of time. Unfortunately, the water levels then fell rapidly and the bufeos were faced with the prospect of being stranded high and dry. Fortunately, Enzo alerted WDC about the bufeos' plight and together, we launched an emergency rescue operation. Mariana and Enzo worked quickly in Bolivia to gather equipment, supplies and volunteers and transported everything to the rescue site; here, they set up camp for everybody.
The rescue team then set about catching the bufeos using large nets. Once caught, they were moved from the drying river, one-by-one in slings and carefully put in the padded boots of 4x4 trucks. The bufeos were moved overland to the main river where they were released to safety. Enzo said…. “At first we thought there were nine dolphins trapped but in the end, we rescued 24 precious bufeos! There were several juveniles and two pregnant females, one of them was huge and heavy - she measured almost two and a half meters long. We had so many logistical issues and problems to solve during the rescue but thankfully we were successful!”
Sadly though, this was not an isolated incident in Bolivia and the team has already been involved in a second rescue. Habitat modification and degradation combined with the effects of climate change are likely to generate more incidences like this in Bolivia (and elsewhere in South America). Enzo has now written a 'Rescue Protocol' to help others react quickly and safely to rescue trapped bufeos. The rescue advice is based on the experiences Enzo and Mariana and the rescue team had during their own rescue operations and the challenges they had to overcome.