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04 July 2017

River Dolphins At Risk From Amazon Dams

Most people assume dolphins live in the sea. But there is a small, less well-known group that can live hundreds of miles from the coast, swimming in freshwater rivers and lakes. The Amazon River dolphins of South America, also known as botos, are a flagship species and a symbol of the huge range of wildlife in the rainforests.  They are also at the heart of many Amazonian myths and legends.

Swimming in small groups in rivers and lakes, and among submerged trees and shrubs in flooded forests, botos can be found as far inland as the upper reaches of Amazonian tributaries, more than 1,615 miles (2,600 km) from the sea. But their days could be numbered. Nobody knows for sure how many are left in the wild but we know they face many threats.  And worryingly, in many areas dramatic declines in river dolphin numbers have been detected due to illegal poaching.  Botos are cruelly and illegally killed and their meat and blubber are used to bait fish.

Amazon River DolphinAdding to their troubles is the dam-building frenzy underway in the Amazon. One hundred and forty hydropower dams have already been built to generate electricity to fuel economic development, especially in Brazil. Dams disrupt river flow, natural flood cycles and nutrient deposition and they also create impenetrable barriers for species that migrate through river waters. Scientists warn that Ďthousands of species could be affected and may even go extinct.í They state that the future of the entire Amazon River basin, its diverse wetlands and unique wildlife are in jeopardy as the damage that will be caused by hundreds of proposed dams will be permanent.

So what can be done? The Amazon basin spans nine South American countries and they will need to work together and consider the consequences of proposed dam-building in the basin as a whole.  They also need to look at the alternative ways of generating power in the Amazon region, including solar power, wind power, geothermal energy and small hydroelectric plants. Governments, scientists, developers and the energy sector need to work on these alternatives together before itís too late.

Amazon River dolphins have already been divided into smaller groups by dams which puts them at risk. This is because the smaller groups of dolphins become isolated from one another making them more vulnerable to other threats including environmental impacts (such as those brought by climate change and disease), hunting and more dams.

Today, in Asia, river dolphins are even more endangered than those in South America, one of them, the baiji or Chinese river dolphin has already gone extinct and so is lost forever (2007). Dam building and habitat degradation  has caused numbers of the Indus River dolphin and the Ganges River dolphin to dramatically decline.

WDC has been working to protect river dolphins and their flooded forest homes in South America for almost 30 years. We want to prevent the repeat of these same mistakes and to save the Amazon River dolphin from further losses and eventual extinction. River dolphins may be the little-known relative of their sea swimming cousins, but in a few years, itís possible that they wonít be remembered at all.

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