The Bolivian River Dolphin

Bolivian River Dolphins
River Dolphins in Bolivia (Inia boliviensis)

River dolphins of Asia and South America are one of the most endangered species in the world. Their principle threats are man-made and include negative interactions with fisheries, poisoning and hunting by fishermen, river pollution and hydrocarbons, and fragmentation of their habitat due to dam construction. They are considered to be an important quality indicator of the aquatic ecosystems they inhabit.

In the face of such threats, a study was conducted to understand the state of the Amazonian river dolphin population.  Researches traveled more than 7,000 kilometers of rivers in the Amazon and Orinoco, through Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Thanks to these research trips, the most significant threats to the species were identified, a network of important work between organizations and researchers was generated, and a global communication strategy was implemented.  Furthermore, this research also confirmed the existence of the endemic river dolphin species of Bolivia (Inia boliviensis).

Distinguishing Features

Map showing Pink River Dolphin Distribution
The endemic bufeo of Bolivia is distributed in the rivers of the Amazon basin, in the departments of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando.

Paul van Damme is the director of the NGO FaunAgua, a Bolivian institution that takes the lead in dolphin research, promoting participatory studies in the Bolivian Amazon. According to van Damme, males can measure up to 2.55 meters long and weigh between 160 and 180 kilograms, while females measure up to 2.16 meters and weigh approximately 100 kilograms. This dolphin has been seen alone and also in groups of up to 19 individuals, which can be composed by several males hunting together, or females with their young.

It is estimated that the gestation period lasts 10 to 11 months. According to van Damme, you can observe females with their babies throughout the year, which suggests that the reproduction is performed in both seasons: In high water and low water.

Bolivian river dolphins (Inia boliviensis) share many anatomical similarities with the Inia geoffrensis species. The Inia species strictly live in freshwater and have certain adaptations to the environment in which they live. Manuel Ruiz Garcia, Spanish biologist explains that some notable features of the Inia boliviensis include the slightly smaller size when compared to the pink dolphins that exist in Peru and Brazil. Another difference is coloring. The Bolivian dolphin is paler which, according to some researchers, is caused due to temperature, water clarity and physical activity.  They can be found in the Bolivian Amazon, most specifically in the Madidi and Aquicuana Reserves.  Companies such as Fremen and RutaVerde provide tourist the opportunity to see the endemic bufeo close up.  Guests of the retreat center, Pisatahua, also have the opportunity to observe the pink dolphin in its native habitat.

Plan for Conservation

Building upon the aforementioned studies to determine the conservation status of river dolphins in South America, a continent-wide conservation plan was implemented. According to Fernando Trujillo, scientific director of Omacha Foundation, the plan began in 2008 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in a meeting with 50 experts from 11 countries.  The meeting included international government representatives, researchers and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Underwater View of the Amazon Dolphin in Bolivia
“It is of a darker gray than the one that characterizes populations of other locations. These animals are of smaller lengths, but certain parts of the body, like the neck or chest, are thicker”, says Ruiz García. He continues: “These Bolivian dolphins have more teeth and seem that the cranial capacity is smaller than what we have found in other forms of river dolphins”.

It took nearly 2 years to complete a plan which reflected the unique situations and needs of all countries, while identifying the most urgent actions to ensure the survival of these species in South America. The South American plan highlighted the need to generate economic alternatives for local communities to implement conservation strategies. “We emphasize touristic activities around dolphins, which already exist in Colombia, as the observation of this species in its natural habitat, promoting the participation of fishing communities”, remarks the researcher Trujillo.

Saulo Usma, WWF official and another dolphin expert, explains that the continent-wide strategy proposes an action plan for each country, which responds to the context of each nation. Currently there are already plans for Colombia and Bolivia, with extensive governmental support.

“River dolphins are seriously threatened and endangered species in other continents. However South America and particularly Bolivia, still have populations of river dolphins in relatively good condition”, said Fernando Trujillo. Nevertheless, Trujillo expressed his concerns stating: “We still have time to take the necessary measures to prevent our dolphins from suffering the same fate as the Asian ones”.

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