Amazon River Dolphins - Natutama Foundation
NATŰTAMA means ‘Everything under the water’
WDCS is a founding supporter of the Natütama Foundation. Now in its 6th year of operation, this non-government organisation (ngo) is located in Puerto Narińo, a large village in the Colombian Amazon. The Amazon river passes through Colombia in the far southern reaches of the country, where it borders both Peru and Brazil. There are no roads here and Puerto Narińo is only reachable by boat along the Amazon.
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The Natütama Foundation was set up to work with local communities to protect Amazon wildlife and habitats. The future of both people and wildlife is dependant on the ecosystem continuing to thrive and natural resources being carefully managed.
Natütama employs some 25 local people (mostly Ticuna Amazon Indians) all on a part time basis (meet the team). The remainder of the time these same individuals look after their families and carry out more traditional actives such as fishing, building, jungle garden maintenance etc. The Natütama model advocates full community participation in all conservation and education activities. Local peoples knowledge about the habitats and wildlife is essential to the success of the groups work. Local peoples understanding and cooperation is also essential if the community is to support conservation action required to protect river dolphins, manatees, turtles and other endangered wildlife and the Amazon ecosystem as a whole.
One of the problems is the lack of legal enforcement of laws and regulations to protect wildlife, and so if local people are not aware that there arelaws banning hunting of endangered species or restricting peoples activities in protected areas, they cannot be expected to abide by them. So this renders the laws useless for wildlife protection. The real need in Amazon communities in Colombia and throughout the Amazon as a whole is socialisation of measures needed to protect endangered wildlife and habitats from further harm. River dolphins are the perfect emblematic species to represent the Amazon ecosystem. They are large, visible, charismatic animals that are known to everybody. They share many threats and problems with other species and so efforts to protect the dolphins will benefit the ecosystem as a whole.
The Natütama Foundation has two key teams; the educators who plan and implement activities designed to educate and inform other local people about the endangered animals in the Amazon, and how they can protect them and their habitats from further harm. The second team are the researchers whose principal role is to gather regular information about wildlife numbers, distribution, trends. They also look out for problems and threats to wildlife which can then be tackled.
Education is the cornerstone of the Natütama model. The team of educators, most of them young adults themselves or school leavers, reach some 800 children per week in Colombia. An outreach scheme of this scale requires a huge amount of planning and preparation and training of educators. The school children in and around Puerto Narińo have weekly lessons and sometimes fieldtrips and other activities provided by Natütama. These are all designed to help children understand the Amazon ecosystem and creatures in it, how they and their families can reduce threats to wildlife and conserve the ecosystem for future generations of local people and wild animals alike. Natütama also hosts regular community workshops and activities for the wider communities bringing together adults of all ages, to discuss issues that are important to them, and for them to learn about the conservation threats to wildlife.
The Natütama research team is made up mainly of fishermen from Puerto Narińo and nearby smaller communities. They are wildlife and Amazon experts in their own right as they have spent their entire lives in and out of dug-out canoes, fishing in the rivers and lakes of the Amazon. They can see things that are not distinguishable or noticeable to visitors or those who have not grown up in the Amazon environment. They intuitively find locations and hotspots of wildlife activity. They can see wild animals or traces of them, signs they have been at a location, or telltale signs at the surface that a manatee or river dolphin is nearby.
This expertise and inherent knowledge about the Amazon environment and creatures that live there is invaluable and makes it possible to closely monitor trends in numbers and distribution of dolphins, manatees, turtles, pirarucu, and the threats facing them in the area. This team offer essential advice and information needed to develop solutions to conservation problems and ways of tackling issues that will be accepted by community as a whole. They are also an action based team - using practical skills to build and maintain the Interpretation Centre, to transfer turtle eggs laid at night, successfully to the safely of the Natutama beach, to gain support for the protection of trees important for heron nest and then protect them from being chopped down and made into chipboard.
Members of the research and monitoring team have now become Wildlife Guardians. The river dolphin guardians carry out weekly surveys in the area and report any known deaths or problems. The manatee guardians used to hunt manatees but are now fully committed to the conservation programme and they talk to other fishermen, urging them not to hunt manatees. It is now 5 years since a manatee was killed in the Puerto Narińo area.
Natütama means everything under the water in the local Amazon Indian Ticuna language. At the heart of Natütama is their beautifully crafted Interpretation Centre. The buildings were constructed by fishermen from the research team using traditional building methods and materials. The exhibits were individually designed, carved and painted by craftspeople from Puerto Narińo and the educators. The two exhibitions each have a theme and stories associated with them which are told by the educators during guided tours. The first is everything under the water in the flooded forest during high water and the second is a river beach at night, exposed on the river bank during the dry season. Both are designed to show people things they otherwise cannot see.
The exhibition has life-sized carvings of river dolphins, Amazon manatees, pirarucu (biggest freshwater fish), otters, turtles and numerous fish species; all swimming amongst flooded trees and roots of the rainforest during the high water season. The Amazon is full of sediment from the Andes and so appears opaque and tea-coloured, making it impossible to see the vast variety of animals and plants below the surface. So even the people living in Amazon communities do not ordinarily get the chance to see the wildlife they share their river homes with. This gives locals and visitors alike a glimpse into the underwater world of the Amazon and it is magical.
The second exhibition is in a large, high roofed building which is lined inside with hundreds of hand sewn dark blue squares of material mounted to create an inner dome with the night sky painted upon it. In the river there is a fisherman watching a river dolphin leap near his net. It is during the low water season and on the beach nearby there is a huge caiman. There are also turtle hatchlings scampering down to the safety of the river from their nest in the sand. Close by there is a capybara, a turtle and a heron in the bushes.
Each June, Natütama organises a week long series of community activities using various ideas and opportunities to put conservation messages across to local people in entertaining ways. Street theatre productions acting out pro-conservation stories are always popular. Children love to see puppet shows and this is a great way to get messages across to people. The week traditionally ends with a huge parade that everyone is invited to take part in. It has become a carnival type affair with local people putting time and energy into creating costumes and entertainment.
The key to Natütama’s success is integrity and transparency of its leaders who live amongst the community and have a huge respect for local people and wildlife. They have an extraordinary capacity to involve and enthuse people about tackling some complicated conservation issues. This socialisation of ideas is very important to the success of the conservation programme.
Natütama hosts over 5000 visitors to Centre on an annual basis. The majority of visitors are Colombian tourists and visiting school groups from Colombian cities. News of the Centre and Natutamas approach to tackling conservation issues with the full participation of the local community has spread. Other communities outside of Colombia have expressed an interest in initiating similar projects in their home countries. This is something WDCS is very enthusiastic about and we are keen to support the dissemination of this model to other parts of the Amazon where threats to river dolphins and other wildlife are severe.
The FUTURE - Spreading the word and the Natütama Model
Natütama has already been instrumental in offering advice on the design and creation of an interpretation centre on the Napo River in Ecuador. Victor Uteras who WDCS has previously supported in river dolphin research efforts in Ecuador contacted Natütama and WDCS about the possibility of having our help and support to set up a community interpretation centre. An exchange between local Indians from both sites followed. Those visiting Natütama in Colombia were enthusiastic about using the same model in Ecuador. Natütama representatives from the local community travelled to Ecuador to help and advise them with the new centre and associated activities.
We are currently planning a regional training workshop in Puerto Narińo to help others who are similarly interested in learning more about the Natütama model and setting up projects using the model in their home countries.