|A total of five endangered Amazonian Manatees were released back into their habitat in Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve after about three years of rehabilitation. It was the first release in Peru. (Photo by Elie Gardner) See slideshow.|
By Elie Gardner
In 2008 Juliana lived in Barrio Florido along the Amazon River in Perú. Tourists paid to see her, an Amazonian Manatee, a gem of the jungle. As her owner’s wallet grew, her health withered.
In 2009 Victoria was up for sale at the Mercado de Productores in Iquitos. The 57-pound manatee could have fed a family for weeks.
In 2007 Centro de Rescate Amazónico (a collaboration between NGO Acobia-DWAZoo, the Dallas World Aquarium and regional government) opened in Iquitos to help endangered species in the Amazon. Juliana and Victoria were rescued. Manatees that came before Juliana and Victoria weren’t as fortunate. El Centro de Rescate Amazónico is the first of its kind in Perú.
Video by Oscar Durand
On April 22, 2011 after more than three years of rehabilitation, Juliana, Victoria and three other manatees were released into their natural habitat deep in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. This was the first release of the endangered species in Perú.
With the financial support of the Dallas World Aquarium the center was able to keep the young manatees alive with a lactose-free milk formulated for orphaned mammals. Previous attempts to rescue manatees with cow milk and other substitutes failed.
In 1970, the species (Trichechus inunguis) was first listed as endangered. The mammal was once hunted commercially for its meat and oil. Despite laws that now protect the dwindling population, natives continue to hunt the manatee.
Javier Velasquez Varela of Centro de Rescate Amazónico says more important than saving the animals is educating locals about the mammal’s value. Putting five manatees back into the wild every few years won’t be enough to keep the species alive, he says. So the center uses education to create awareness of the manatee in the community and hopefully reduce the number of manatees taken in as pets, used as tourist traps or killed for meat and oil.
In addition to the education program, the center welcomes tourists and volunteers. The visitors get the chance to help at feeding time, holding the bottles for the manatees as they drink.
The Amazonian Manatee is the only freshwater species of manatee and lives in the lakes and rivers of the Amazon Basin in South America, a system that contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. The manatee plays a vital role in controlling the population of aquatic plants on the surface of the water, which is important to water quality and the survival of other species. If aquatic plants crowd the surface of the water, they keep light from reaching life under the surface of the water. The fish that depend on plants below the surface are the lifeblood of the Amazonian communities. If these fish become as scarce as the manatee, communities will go hungry and lose their economic base.
The center is located at kilometer 4.5 on the highway from Iquitos to Nauta. It’s a 15 minute drive from the airport in Iquitos.