Historic Actions Offer Hope for Endangered River Dolphin

Posted on
24 October 2023
The Manari Ranch, Field Museum Chicago, and local field biologists, supported by WWF, conducted the first environmental DNA (eDNA) survey to assess the extent of the pink river dolphin in southern Guyana. The first-of-a-kind research on river dolphins in Guyana was carried out in the Rupununi Region and is a crucial undertaking that will provide valuable insight into the behaviour and distribution of this species in Guyana.

By studying this species, experts and local communities will gain a deeper understanding of its ecological role, habitat requirements, and potential threats to its survival, considering its restricted distribution in the Amazon region. Additionally, the findings of this research can help inform conservation efforts and management strategies to ensure the long-term sustainability of this species and its ecosystem. Through collaboration and data sharing, this research will also facilitate greater awareness and appreciation of the unique and diverse wildlife in the Rupununi Region.

During the monitoring activities, researchers observed several pods of dolphins in the waterways of the Rupununi. Environmental DNA (eDNA) samples were collected in the dry season from 20 sites, with the presence of the pink river dolphin detected at 12 sites. The study also saw the presence of 274 other taxa, representing a diverse range of species in the area. Follow-up rainy season eDNA samples are currently being analysed. The available data on the species, including extensive field observations, genetic analysis, and behavioural studies, will be incorporated into the comprehensive SARDI dashboard, which will serve as a central repository, complementing the data on the species from other range countries.

The river dolphin is one of the species that act as an ecological link, connecting Guyana to the Amazon basin via the globally renowned Rupununi wetlands. The wetlands are critical for the survival of the surrounding communities, sustain vast ecosystems and serve as migration channels for the river dolphins moving from the Amazon to the Rupununi during the wet seasons.  It was also discovered that river dolphins are present in the Rupununi region throughout their lifecycle and even during the dry season. However, more research is needed to determine if a local population of dolphins reside in the area throughout the year.

“The year-round presence of these dolphins in the Rupununi region has important implications for the conservation and management of this area, as it highlights the need for further study and protection of this valuable ecosystem, which can contribute to the development of effective conservation strategies aimed at preserving the unique biodiversity of the Rupununi region,” said Indranee Roopsind.

The research which began in January of 2023, was led by Guyanese field biologist Indranee Roopsind, conservationist Lissa Orella, and local experts Don Melville and Julian Orella. The team collaborated with conservation biologist Dr. Lesley de Souza, who is a world-leading expert on aquatic species in The Amazon basin of the Field Museum Chicago and Dr Sophie Picq, an expert on tropical fishes and eDNA sampling, to incorporate eDNA sampling for this project. Local community representatives participated in the monitoring activities, with the support of WWF, South America River Dolphins Initiative and other partner organisations.
“Through partnerships with local communities and leveraging the power of science, we can make better progress in uncovering new insights into the lives of these fascinating animals and their vital role in the delicate ecosystems of the Rupununi region,” said Aiesha Williams, WWF-Guianas Country Manager, Guyana. 
Local Knowledge
In addition to the research on river dolphins, a social survey was conducted among residents in Lethem. The survey aimed to evaluate the extent of their knowledge and attitudes towards river dolphins, including aspects such as their traditional beliefs, cultural values, and level of awareness about the species.
The preliminary findings suggest that the younger generation has a limited understanding and connection with river dolphins, highlighting the need for increased awareness and education among the younger generation to foster a greater appreciation and conservation of river dolphins.
Global Dolphin Declaration
Since the 1980s, global river dolphin populations have plummeted by 73% due to a barrage of threats, including unsustainable fishing practices, hydropower dams, pollution from agriculture, industry and mining, and habitat loss. The recent deaths of over 150 river dolphins in the Amazon’s drought-ravaged Lake Tefé show that climate change is becoming an increasingly severe threat to their survival.

This study of dolphins in Guyana is a significant step forward in accelerating action towards protecting declining populations of river dolphins, as it comes at a time when WWF is also working to bring about positive change with the launch of its landmark initiative, the Global Declaration for River Dolphins, today in Colombia. This declaration has been adopted by 11 Asian and South American range states from Colombia to India. It aims to halt the decline of all river dolphin species and increase the most vulnerable populations. It will scale up collective efforts to safeguard the remaining river dolphin species by developing and funding measures to eradicate gillnets, reduce pollution, expand research, and increase protected areas.

As an indicator species, the presence of the iconic river dolphin is an excellent example of a nature-positive environment where the whole ecosystem is healthy and thriving, benefiting local and indigenous communities, and even going as far as cities. River dolphins live in some of the world’s most important rivers, including the Amazon and Orinoco in South America and the Ayeyarwady, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Mahakam, and Yangtze in Asia.