ENDANGERED SPECIES ESSAY

We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But whereas just last year there were only 10 vaquitas left, today their numbers have fallen further below. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.

There are pink dolphins (Inia araguaiaensis) in South America’s Amazon River. They are very intelligent, with a 40 percent higher brain capacity than a human brain.

They inhabit the Amazon, the largest river in the world by freshwater volume. This river crosses through Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela.

The pink dolphin is also called the Amazon river dolphin, the pink river dolphin, boto cor-de rosa, (pink river dolphin), or botos, which we’ll call them in this article. They weren’t always pink. At birth they’re gray, then they turn pink with age.

Their degree of pink varies. Some have only speckles of pink, while others are completely pink. Pinkness is spurred by their capillary placement, diet, sun exposure, and emotions. Pink male dolphins flush a brighter pink when excited, especially during mating season. Females are most attracted to the pinkest dolphins. Gray dolphins roughly attack their pink counterparts, resulting in scar tissue that adds more pinkness. Sometimes, the male boto will have a “gift” in its mouth for a female.

Swimming in the forest

Procreation occurs in the rainy season, when the Amazon rainforest is flooded with water, allowing male botos to leave the flooded rivers and swim for miles between the flooded forest trees.

The wetlands system of the Amazon was granted international protected status in 2018, because of the role it plays in dolphin breeding. The males reach females residing in lakes. The boto’s habitat is both the forest and the river. When the rainy season ebbs, the males return to the Amazon river.

Mother botos are pregnant for 13 months, They nurse their young for two years, and reproduce every 3-5 years. Botos have a 30-year lifespan.

Myths of the river dolphin

Some locals still believe ancient myths that botos are semi-divine and magical. Other boto myths are:

  1. Morphing. Amazon folklore says botos morph into handsome men dressed in white, called “boto encantado”, or “enchanted one”. They seduce and impregnate women, then return to the river at sunrise. In Sy Montgomery’s book,

Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest, a man tells of his cousin’s wife who was fooled by a boto disguised as her husband. The wife was impregnated and bore the boto’s child.

  1. Kidnapping. One shouldn’t swim alone, as a boto may kidnap you and take you to Encante, a magical underwater city.

  2. Avoid direct eye contact with a boto. Otherwise, you’ll have a lifetime of nightmares and evil visions.

  3. Rainforest mystics are believed to have learned medicinal arts from botos.

  4. It’s bad luck to harm and eat botos.

Meg Symington of the World Wildlife Foundation said myths “played a role in the stability of (boto) populations”.

Facts about botos

Botos are sweet, docile, and shy, but are curious about people and will play with local children. However, botos can bite like piranhas, so one should err on the side of caution and keep a respectful distance.

As the biggest freshwater dolphin, the boto can grow 9 feet and weigh 400 pounds. It’s the best dolphin swimmer. Because its spine vertebrae aren’t joined together, it makes 180 degree turns even in shallow waters. Because its neck vertebrae are similarly detached, it can look back 90 degrees while swimming forward. It swims on its backs for better vision, as its chubby cheeks block downward vision when swimming on its belly. Sometimes, botos will rest on the seafloor, balancing itself on its two side fins and tail.

The boto navigates the polluted Amazon River through echolocation. It can locate invisible, far away objects, and capture prey even without eyesight. The large bump on top of the boto’s head is a “lens” that permits focus to echolocation. To hear it, go here at 1:14.

Population

The IUCN ranked the Inia geoffresis (Amazon River Dolphin) as endangered in 2018. However, the boto is a subspecies of Inia geoffresis and is called Inia araguaiaensis. So far, botos are not fully counted, but estimates range from a few dozen to a few thousand.

Biologist Susana Caballero, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, studied boto genetics using fat samples. She determined that there is the uncertainty of boto populations, and it’s possible a single species may actually have four separate subspecies. Because they are threatened, unique dolphin species may go extinct before science even knows them.

Caballero further noted that if one assumes a dolphin species has 10,000 individuals, but there are four subspecies, it would mean 2,500 individuals per subspecies. Caballero concluded that the boto is critically endangered.

The population decline of botos in Brazil alone is due to fishermen’s gill nets. In less than 50 years, Brazil’s boto population may fall by a minimum of 95 percent.

Threats

Other threats causing botos’ heavy decline are:

  1. A rise in hunting botos with the lifting of the 2o14 ban on hunting catfish (Piracatinga). On January, 2020, boto fishing rose for its fatty blubber, used by fishermen to lure catfish, which commands a high price in city markets.

  2. Humans riding in motorized boats sometimes collided with botos, causing their death or injury.

  3. The growing pollution of the botos’ habitats both in the water and the forest affects their health and lives.

  4. Mercury used to extract gold from mines results in land and water deposits of mercury and methylmercury (its most toxic form). They inhabit both the forest ground and the Amazon river floor where bottom feeders like catfish eat them. Tests revealed that predators of catfish, including botos, have high, unsafe levels of mercury. Eighty percent of mercury emissions in South America originate in the Amazon.

  5. Deforestation destroys forests, another boto habitat. The land is used for animal grazing, and fallen trees are used for building, production, and fuel. Deforestation infects the food chain.

  6. Studies indicate that dams fragment and isolate boto populations, and degrade their downstream habitat.

Finding botos

How far do botos swim? Fernando Trujillo, dolphin expert, Omacha Foundation, is catching botos, measuring them, and tagging for tracking. He discovered that male botos travel up and down the river, congregating at river intersections where food is plentiful.

Trujillo learned that males travel long distances with each change in season along the river, while females stay in one place, caring for their calves.

However, interference by humans has taken its toll and the food supply for the boto is diminishing. As a result, two botos will fight over one fish. You can see this, here at 2:18.

Wildlife presenter Steve Backshall spent months on the Amazon before he finally saw botos in the wild for two minutes. He fed them, and the botos went for it. Backshall said their intelligence probably helped them decide to get the food given to them, rather than rely only on what they catch. To see pink dolphins in the wild, go here.

What is being done about them?

Trujillo’s discovery of boto hotspots informs him of where preservation efforts should focus, rather than trying to protect the entire river.

Caballero said more funding is needed to further study the genetics of botos, including alleles (which point out small differences in the same gene, and their DNA sequence. This reveals an individual’s unique physical features).

A South American River Dolphins Action Plan was dated from 2010 to 2020, so an update on the progress of the action plan is needed with updated goals and methodologies.

What is needed

More study of the boto is needed, particularly genetic studies to further guide an updated identification of the boto species and counting them. To date, the exact number of botos remains unknown.

The ban of fishing piracatinga ended in January 2020, but scientists are calling for its renewal. Otherwise, fishermen will continue to kill botos and use its fat as bait for catfish.

Why are botos important ecologically?

The boto has a special ecological niche. Their biology and ecology are strongly aligned to seasonal variation and changing water levels. This makes them important predators of a wide range of fish species in the river and the forest when it floods, controlling prey populations.

The only known predator of botos today is humans. Botos don’t travel in large groups (typical of animals eaten by carnivores). They hunt alone during high water season, and sometimes 5 to 35 botos will gather to catch prey.

The intrinsic value of botos should be considered. Their intelligence and superior brainpower space to human brains may help us see learning possibilities that are still unknown. Of course, this can’t happen if they become extinct, so the priority is to save their lives.