The Dallas World Aquarium,
Peruvian conservation group release
rescued Amazonian manatees

Aquarium founder deeply committed to manatee rescue; release project helps save threatened species from extinction.

DALLAS (November 3, 2017) – Nearly 3,000 miles from Texas, in the remote Amazon rainforest of Peru, a team of veterinarians, biologists and conservationists from The Dallas World Aquarium’s manatee rescue project has successfully released five rehabilitated Amazonian manatees back into their natural environment near Iquitos, Peru.

Five additional manatees are scheduled for release by the team in May 2018. The international project is being filmed by the British Broadcast Corp. (BBC) for a documentary series called “Earth from Space.”

This is a major milestone in a complex, nine-year effort to keep one of the Amazon’s most unique aquatic mammal species from extinction. The manatees were saved by the DWA/CREA Amazon Rescue Center, founded by The Dallas World Aquarium Director and CEO Daryl Richardson. The international release team includes experts from Mexico, Japan, Britain, Venezuela and Peru. Many local villagers, including children, also came to celebrate the releases on Wednesday and Thursday. The animals, including the first manatee ever rescued by the Center, are outfitted with satellite and VHF radio transmitters to monitor their success. The area is accessible only by boat or plane, and the Aquarium funded the Peruvian Army to provide aquatic planes to safely move the animals to the release site.

“The release of these manatees is emotional and incredibly uplifting,” Richardson said, who travels from Dallas to the remote Center often to support his team of 18 professionals working there. “We’ve worked hard for years, trying to help this charismatic species survive. It’s breathtaking to see these creatures slip into their natural waters and swim away when released.

“So much work is needed to protect our natural world — from oceans to the Amazon. The mission has gone from important to imperative,” Richardson said.

Even in such a vast, wild place as the Amazon, clashes occur between wildlife and the 30 million people who live there. With no means of self-defense, Amazonian manatees are at the mercy of their main predator: humans. Villagers, mistakenly believing manatees eat the fish on which they survive, have trapped manatees in nets, killing the adults for consumption and selling babies as pets or to commercial tourist companies. Yet the shy mammal actually eats a diet only of aquatic plants, living nearly its entire life underwater in pursuit of water hyacinths, bladderworts, water lilies and grasses.

“Some remote villagers still believe the manatees compete for their food, but our teams are working with local residents to help them understand manatees are not threats,” Richardson said. “We are enlisting community members to help to make changes so that the manatees do not disappear.”

The dark-gray, torpedo-shaped river dwellers (Trichechus inunguis) have a bristly, hippo-like snout and a flattened rear end. They can grow to 9-feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds, and are found across the Amazon, from Peru to Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Guyana. Due to the Amazon’s murky waters, it is difficult to know how many manatees remain. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies them as “vulnerable,” anticipating a further 30 percent population decline in coming years. The Dallas World Aquarium collaborates with partners in Peru, including its own DWA/CREA, Amazon Rescue Center; the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon; the Regional Bureau for the Production of Loreto; and the Technical Administration of Forestry and Wildlife Iquitos.

“It’s critical to get on the ground, work with local biologists and speak directly with the people who live there,” Richardson said. “They know their world, and they have the most to lose from an environmental collapse. Combining rescue and education is a very effective way to make a difference.”

With the support of The Dallas World Aquarium’s admissions from guests, Richardson provides ongoing medical supplies, equipment, expertise and funding for the Center and its staff.

“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Richardson said. “We are going to rehabilitate and release as many manatees as we can. But we’ve also made a commitment to the community, not just the animals. That’s why we employ local staff to care for the animals and to provide education about conservation.”

Education is key to saving manatees
The Rescue Center’s biologists fan out through the remote region, teaching residents – particularly children – why wildlife protection is so important.

“We are working to protect endangered animals in the Amazon, but we also want to teach about sustainable development,” said Cristian Vélez Ramirez, who works at the Center. “This will show how all things are connected.”

One example: While villagers kill manatees, thinking they are fish-eaters, the manatees’ absence actually lets aquatic plants run wild, blocking lakes and rivers.

“The health of the Amazon depends on manatees eating the right amounts of algae and plants that would otherwise take over and the waterways,” said Javier Velásquez of the Rescue Center. “The local people are affected, because they can no longer enter these lakes to fish.”

Richardson is a long-time champion for manatee conservation. Over 20 years ago, the first Antillean manatee calf was rescued in Venezuela followed by a second that was accidentally caught by fishermen. With permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Venezuelan Ministry of the Environment (PROFAUNA), Richardson agreed to fly them to Dallas, where they would be cared for while the rescue and rehabilitation center was built. Then in 2008, he responded to requests for help with four rescued manatees near Iquitos. The calves, weighing just 12 pounds each, were orphaned when their mothers were killed for their meat.

The Aquarium immediately sent powdered milk, medical supplies and money to help the calves, and provided expertise on how to best care for them. As the calves grew, they were fed goats’ milk, bananas and lettuce, and were weighed weekly to ensure that they were thriving.

“We offered assistance because no one else did,” Richardson said. “At the time, we had no idea we were stepping into such a big project.”

Since its opening, the Center has received more than 50 seriously injured or orphaned manatees. With the five animals released this week, the Center has rehabilitated and released 23 manatees in the last several years. These include a female, named South America, who was the Center’s first rescued manatee in 2007 and who successfully had a calf in 2016, making her story an important milestone in the program. She and her calf were released together on Thursday.

The Rescue Center also has saved, rehabilitated and/or released other regional animals, including river dolphins, giant otters, giant anteaters and Jaguars. The Peruvian Amazon’s first formal rescue center, it’s become one of the most popular eco-tourism destinations in Iquitos, educating thousands of guests each year about conservation and how they can live in harmony with wildlife.

BBC filming manatee release
An international spotlight will shine on the manatee rescue project after a BBC film crew traveled from the United Kingdom to film the release. The story will be included in a segment of a four-part documentary series called “Earth from Space.” The BBC plans to focus on the involvement of children from local communities in the release and will also film at Manco Capac Village. Its planned released is in 2019.

Richardson added that the documentary will highlight the need for zoos and aquariums to participate in the conservation of endangered species in the field. He wants guests to The Dallas World Aquarium to know that their visit directly supports these and other wildlife conservation efforts. “Part of every guest’s admission goes straight into the field work we are doing to save endangered species,” Richardson said. “We want to help get these rescued manatees back into their home environment.”

Richardson and the Aquarium are key members of the Interagency/Oceanaria working group of AZA facilities and manatee rescue organizations, which partner to rescue and rehabilitate manatees in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.