The Amazon River Dolphins of Yacu Warmi, Ecuador

The small community of Yacu Warmi, at the far end of Ecuador, has made friends with the Amazon river dolphins. Dolphin watching as a little income opportunity is helping the endangered freshwater dolphin to gain new importance for the locals.

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Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. Marcelo holds a long, hollow metal stick into the water. He strikes it vigorously with a second metal bar in a steady rhythm. The metallic sound reminds me of the monotonous ringing of a church bell that calls the faithful to mass on Sunday mornings. I stare expectantly at the murky water in front of the wobbly wooden platform. Hasn’t something just moved there?

There’ s not much to see in the cappuchino-colored river water. To be exact: my view reaches maybe just twenty centimeters deep into the water. I only notice the two pink dolphins when they stick their bristly pink snouts out of the water right in front of me. It is feeding time. Marcelo has several fish ready on the wooden platform for the two Amazon river dolphins. When there are guests, there are more fish on the table.

Marcelo attracted the dolphins with rhythmic slapping of the metal rods.
Amazon River Dolphins
We saw the pink river dolphins in the murky waters of the Rio Cocaya only when they stretched their snouts out of the water.
As a thank you, the dolphins get a few fish.

On a Visit to the Amazon River Dolphins of Yacu Warmi

At the far end of Ecuador, across the border from Peru lies the community of Yacu Warmi. About 12 years ago, residents of the community began making rhythmic sounds underwater with metal rods. Every day. They were tipped off by a guest who was there at the time, who apparently had something to do with marine mammals. The Amazon river dolphins became curious and came closer to investigate the sounds. Once they were close enough to shore, they were given a fish as a reward. Since then, the rare animals have regularly stayed at the mouth of the Rio Cocaya, a small blackwater river that flows into the Aguarico River.

Yasuni Warmi Ecuador
The community of Yacu Warmi is located at the edge oy Ecuador near the border to Peru. The name Yacu Warmi is Kichuan and means Women of the Water what refers to the Amazon river dolphins.

The river dolphins’ favorite food includes suckermouth catfish – my favorite fish. As a child, I had several of them in an aquarium. One must have been about eight centimeters in length with long antennae streching out from its snout. He seemed gigantic to me back then. I watched him for countless hours as he used his sucking mouth to clear the aquarium glass of algae. When Marcelo holds one of my beloved fish in the air above the dolphins, I stop breathing for a moment. With their jaws wide open, the dolphins stretch upward out of the water. I could see their close to two hundred teeth lined up along their pincer-like snouts. In a moment, the suckermouth catfish disappears.

For about 12 years, the inhabitants of the Commune have been attracting river dolphins and rewarding them with fish, such as the suckermouth catfish.
Amazon River Dolphins
The fish are just a little snack. However, the dolphins do not forget how to hunt on their own.

There is no guarantee that the Amazon river dolphins will come to the platform after beating the metal bars. We were there again on the following day. The dolphins were also around, every now and then they would pop up and we could hear them exhaling loudly. But the sound of the metal sticks left them completely chilled in contrast to the day before. Perhaps they preferred to hunt for themselves or perhaps they simply had no interest in humans that day. The water level had slightly dropped, and the fish were easy to catch in large quantities.

Still hunted for their teeth!

River dolphins are still hunted for their teeth today. Teeth are worn as talismans or crushed into powder. It is said that if the powder is mixed into a drink, it will make the man more potent or it will cause his beloved lady to fall in love with him.

Amazon River Dolphins
The pincer-like mouth has about 200 teeth, for which Amazon river dolphins are still hunted.

To feed or not to feed?

Should one feed wild animals? I reflexively answer this question with “No”. Feeding wild animals changes their behavior and can put people and animals in danger. Nevertheless, one must also differentiate here: it is a difference whether one hangs a titmouse dumpling to the titmice in winter or whether one lures bull sharks with a fish bait in front of the underwater camera.

But how is it now in the case of the Amazon river dolphins? I’ll ask a second question about this: Is it better to lure dolphins with food for dolphin-watching or to turn the dolphins themselves into food bait for fishing? And now you have to weigh up and take a closer look at the facts. Yacu Warmi’s Amazon River dolphins live freely, can come and go as they please, and certainly will not unlearn to hunt fish themselves. I don’t see any negative consequences for humans or animals in this case. Rather the opposite: as river dolphins provide a little extra income, their value to locals increases. And what is valuable is more likely to be protected.

Did I miss something or did you have other experiences? Then please write me a comment.

When is feeding wildlife ok and when is it not?
Here's an easier question: Is it better to lure dolphins with food for dolphin-watching or to turn the dolphins themselves into food bait for fishing?
Amazon River Dolphins
For the inhabitants of Yacu Warmi, the dolphin-interested visitors are a welcome source of income. That day, the dolphins joined in and smiled for the camera.

Pink River Dolphins between black Gold, heavy Metals and Fishing Nets

Amazon river dolphins – also called boto, pink river dolphin, or inia – live in the major river systems of the Amazon, Orinoco, and Rio Madeira. Their range extends from Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador to Guyana.

In Ecuador, river dolphins are found in the Yasuni National Park and Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. There they prefer the so-called blackwater rivers and lagoons. These waters are characterized by a high proportion of humic substances and are very rich in fish. In the wide Rio Napo, however, the dolphins are hardly to be seen. The current is too strong and the river carries too much sediment.

The wide Rio Napo is avoided by the river dolphins because the current is too strong and the water carries too much sediment.
The narrower blackwater rivers are the home of the river dolphins.

The Amazon river dolphin belongs to the endangered dolphin species and is classified as “endangered” in the IUCN Red List. Exact figures on the total population are not available, but estimates put the number at several tens of thousands of individuals, which, however, are distributed very differently from region to region. The proximity of humans and the dolphins living in the rivers brings many risks for the animals. As competitors for food, they are pursued by fishermen, they get caught in nets as bycatch or are deliberately caught and cut into pieces to be used as bait for fishing. The destruction of the habitat by dam construction or by deforestation and the resulting increase in mud input also makes it difficult for the river dolphins. Also, the increasing pollution with oil and mercury by gold mining leaves obvious traces.

Oil is drilled in Yasuni National Park. By 2021, there were 16 sites. A few years ago, a pipeline leak caused serious pollution of the surrounding waters. Food sources and drinking water supplies for humans and animals were poisoned. In 2021, two dead dolphins were found in the Rio Cocaya, not far from our lodge. Why they died is not entirely clear. There were investigations, but the oil companies denied any guilt, because, after all the dolphins are moving, and they could have suffered poisoning even in distant places.

The area between Rio Napo and Rio Yasuni is said to have only about 16 Amazon river dolphins left.

A common sight: Oil trucks on the Rio Napo.

Mythology, Love and human Abysses

Yacu Warmi is Kichuan and means Women of the Water. This refers to the Amazon river dolphins. In mythology, there are reports of a man falling in love with a female river dolphin and even living out this love physically with the animal. Another story that our guide told us is not really about love but about a rape of a stranded female dolphin. While two men were holding the poor animal, the third was enjoying himself. A true story? Our guide emphasized it several times. During my research about the pink river dolphins I expected many things, but I didn’t expect this.

Another story from mythology is a little nicer: a young woman goes to the river in the mornings to do laundry and every morning she finds a fish in a certain place. She takes it, fries it and eats it. But it seems strange to her after some time and she reports the mysterious gifts of fish to a shaman. He recognizes the seriousness of the situation and warns the young woman. If she ate two more of these fish, she would go into the water herself and become a dolphin. The gifts were from a male river dolphin who was apparently looking for a female.

Among some indigenous peoples, there is also a persistent belief that a drowned human will transform into a river dolphin. In this new life, however, the river dolphin retains the ability to transform back into a human during occasional visits to land. Some people also believe that dolphins live in underwater kingdoms and have supernatural powers. They are ‘encantados’ – enchanted shape-shifters who live as river dolphins during the day and transform into a handsome young men at night, leaving the river to seduce young girls. Before morning they return to the river, the girls become pregnant and eventually children are born. Apparently there are actually birth certificates with “Boto Cor de Rosa” listed as the father.

What to do for the Amazon River Dolphins

A key factor in the threats to Amazon River dolphins is their habitat proximity to humans. The main threats are:

  • Development of residential and commercial areas
  • Oil and gas drilling and mining and quarrying
  • Fishing (persecution as food competitors, bycatch, and use as bait)
  • Habitat alterations due to dams and water management uses
  • Pollution from sewage and accidents

To counteract further declines in the overall population, countries have implemented various conservation measures. In addition to on-site research and monitoring, action plans have been developed and protected areas have been established. Education and awareness of the population as well as legal protection and trade controls are further pillars for the protection of the Amazon river dolphins.

Some communities have recognized the value of river dolphins to tourism. But sometimes it looks different than at Yacu Warmi: The river dolphins are not free in the water, but locked in a cage. Often dolphin swimming is then offered, where guests climb into the cage with the dolphins. This is certainly not in the sense of the protection of species. In these cases the dolphins are simply abused for a few quick dollars. Here, everyone who travels to the Amazon can do something by choosing a responsible tour operator and by making sure that the offered dolphin encounter is fair to the dolphins.

And even if you don’t travel to South America, you can support the river dolphin with a donation. Check out the WWF, they have a lot more information and also a donation program running.

Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), Río Cocaya, Ecuador
River dolphins are adapted to living in murky, narrow waters. Their echolocation system is excellently developed. The eyes of Amazon river dolphins are greatly reduced in size, but functional. They also have tactile hairs on their snout.

Da Silva, V., Trujillo, F., Martin, A., Zerbini, A.N., Crespo, E., Aliaga-Rossel, E. & Reeves, R. 2018. Inia geoffrensis. 2018: e.T10831A50358152. Accessed on October 13, 2022. 

WWF Artenlexikon. Downloaded on October 13, 2022.

WDC: Amazonas-Flussdelfin (Boto). Downloaded on October 13,  2022.

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