Perhaps you have seen one of these lovely manatees along Florida’s waterways, its back scarred and pitted by a close encounter with a boat propeller; but at least US Federal Law protects them, and they cannot be hunted. In Peru’s Upper Amazon, their cousins, the freshwater Amazon Manatees, face those risks and more — they are being hunted to extinction for food by their only significant enemy — man. A partnership between the Association for the Conservation of Amazonian Biodiversity and the Dallas World Aquarium Zoo (ACOBIA-DWAzoo) aims to combat this “tradition” while trying to save orphaned endangered manatees in the process.
Located just outside Iquitos, Peru’s largest jungle city, is the Manatee Rescue Center. Here volunteers and veterinarians specialized in the treatment of marine mammals care for the baby manatees. Many of these are brought to the center after their mother has been killed; sometimes they are rescued by the staff of the Center as they crisscross the region trying to educate the people, especially the children, about the need to protect the manatees. The volunteers also try to convince the adults to use sustainable alternatives to hunting the animal.
Sometimes the babies have been wounded by machetes or propellers; often they have been fed incorrectly by their captors and arrive malnourished and ill. The babies brought to the Center are the lucky one. They are cared for by the volunteers who hand-feed them with a special formula provided by a similar project in Florida. When they are old enough to be weaned, they are fed a diet of bananas and aquatic plants. The aim of the Center is to care for these youngsters until they can be re-released into the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve where they stand a good chance of surviving. They are tagged with an electronic transponder, placed into larger holding pens and monitored for a substantial period of time, before being permanently released.
We visit the Center during our trip to Peru and are fortunate enough to spend some time feeding the baby manatees. Our volunteer host explains that there are four species of manatees in the world, with the Amazonian species (Trichechus inunguis) being the largest. This species can grow up to ten feet in length and weigh up to 1,000 lbs. It inhabits the rivers and swamps of the Amazon basin in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, and Venezuela. Because of the remoteness of the area, there is no exact count of how many remain.
Our guide, who is clearly ultra-passionate about his young charges, also explains how baby manatees nurse from their mother for up to two years even though they start eating aquatic plants after 1-2 months. We help feed the babies from a small platform. Three of them swim over; two noisily suck on the large bottles of formula, spilling drops onto the long whiskers around their double-nostrilled snout. The third one greedily munches the pieces of banana that are fed to him. Stroke them and their skin feels soft and smooth, like neoprene.
With its flattened long tail, front limbs shaped like flippers and soulful, sad eyes, legend has it that in ancient times, sailors mistook the manatees for mermaids. You have to wonder how anyone could hurt such a gentle creature. Perhaps with the continued efforts by the ACOBIA-DWAzoo, the trend can be halted and reversed.
IF YOU GO
The Manatee Rescue Center managed by ACOBIA-DWAzoo is on the highway (Carretera) to Nauta, just outside Iquitos, 2 miles from the airport, on the grounds of the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP). The best way to get around Iquitos is on the Amazonian version of a tuk-tuk (called motokakarro here). The Center is open Monday to Sunday from 0900 to 1230 and 1400 to 1600. Admission is free but donations are very much appreciated. You can find more information on the project at the Dallas World Aquarium website (www.dwazoo.com/conservation) where there is an outstanding video about the release of the young manatees.