International approval for South American conservation plan for river dolphins

30 September 2021

Global body endorses action plan to safeguard rivers dolphins in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru

In a major boost for river dolphins in South America, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has approved a Conservation Management Plan (CMP) for river dolphins in the Amazon, Orinoco, Tocantins and Araguaia rivers that was developed by Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The CMP, which was drafted by teams of government commissioners, scientists, and technicians with extensive experience in the conservation of these river dolphins, can now begin full development and hopefully also implementation in 2021.

River dolphins face a myriad of threats, including bycatch in fishing nets, hunting, habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and noise disturbances, explained Andrea Ramírez, Director of Marine and Coastal Affairs and Aquatic Resources of the Ministry of Environment from Colombia. Ms Ramírez presented the proposal before the Committee and highlighted the support received in this process by civil society organizations involved in the South American River Dolphins Initiative (SARDI).

The approval of a CMP by the IWC is a major milestone for SARDI, an initiative made up of Faunagua, Fundación Omacha, Mamirauá Institute, Prodelphinus, Solinia and WWF organizations.

This Initiative has conducted extensive work including the estimation of abundance and satellite monitoring of river dolphins in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. SARDI has called attention to the danger of threats such as construction of hydroelectric power plants, which affect river connectivity and, therefore, dolphin movements. The results of these studies were key to developing the proposal and obtaining the go-ahead from the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Fernando Trujillo, director of the Omacha Foundation and member of the Scientific Committee of the IWC, said that the CMP comes at an important moment: a year ago the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorized the Amazon river dolphin as Endangered, which highlights the urgency to implement actions for its conservation. Trujillo added that it is important that political and legislative coordination be achieved between the four countries to undertake joint actions that allow counteracting factors that threaten the survival of these species, such as mercury contamination, deforestation and the loss of river connectivity.

“It is quite remarkable that, in times of pandemic, four countries decided to work together and articulate actions to ensure the survival of river dolphins on the continent, since they already have plans to involve partners in Bolivia and Venezuela, “said Saulo Usma, WWF-Colombia Freshwater Specialist.

This CMP represents a great challenge since the geographical area where it will be implemented corresponds to three hydrographic basins with approximately 9 million square kilometers. In addition, it involves four species, four countries that are part of the IWC and two others (Bolivia and Venezuela) with which actions will be articulated.

This is a significant step not only for South American rivers dolphins but also for the other three surviving river dolphin species in Asia – all of which are covered by WWF’s ambitious River Dolphin Rivers Initiative.