The Dallas World Aquarium is gaining international interest, this time for good. As part of its documentary series, Earth From Space, BBC is documenting the DWA's project in which a team of veterinarians, biologists and conservationists have rescued and released five rehabilitated Amazonian manatees back into their natural environment near Iquitos, Peru.
People of the small village mistakenly believed that manatees ate fish, which the villagers eat to survive. They trapped young manatees in nets to sell them as pets or to commercial tourist companies and killed the mother manatees for food. Manatees eat only aquatic plants, including water hyacinths, bladderworts, water lilies and grasses.
Aquarium CEO Daryl Richardson spoke to us about the manatees, the documentary scheduled to air in 2019 and the aquarium's reputation.
What drew you and the DWA to the manatees?
Well, I was contacted on this particular species of manatees in Peru in 2008. I was able to see four animals that were under 20 pounds or around 20 pounds, very young animals, and prior to those animals, they never really had gotten a diet that would keep them alive.
When we went down there, it was obvious that [the villagers] would catch the mother. They would eat the mother, and they would take the baby to these villages, to the chief tent in these remote villages, [and] would keep them ... like a mascot of the Amazon, sort of like what it gave back. Then [the manatees] got really ill, and then they would bring them in to try to get help.
We always care about our animals getting hit by boats, and I was really kind of shocked to know that they were actively eating the manatees. To have four very young animals that needed help, we worked with three local biologists. ... That's how it started.
I went in more as a Band-Aid in the beginning just to save these four animals, not really knowing what else was going on in that particular part of the world. I had never been to Iquitos. I had never really been to Peru a lot. That was quite a shock, and then the more we were there, we realized that ... the key was gonna be environmental education to these remote villages. We really needed to work with the government. Some of those remote villages, they have their different languages. We have to kind of make it their idea.
How do you expect the manatees' natural instincts to kick in? How have they been?
I just got a report this morning. Takaya, one of the older manatees that we released, she was in the reserve and we satellite tagged them, and she bolted — I mean as in she left the immediate area within two to three days. South America is her young calf and still in the vicinity, and we're tracking her daily as well as the other ones.
It appears, as to the past releases, the younger the animals are when we receive them, the more closely they stay to the area where they're released, so they're not nearly as adventurous. Maybe they're more apprehensive. The Obscoe Lake where we put them is a very secure area; on different releases, we've seen different results.
We had one animal we released and we tracked it. It got kind of ... separated as the water went down, and we were able to move it into the main part of the river. You have to really try and keep an eye on them as long as you can since they're somewhat inexperienced, but they're very shy creatures. You don't want to put a floaty on them, like they do when they put the floats on them in Florida to track them, because you don't want to draw attention to any natives that might harpoon them.
We basically put belts on them that will wear off within about three months. We are monitoring them with our satellites out at the reserve for the next six months. We have a person staying there to get the reports on the animals.
How many Amazonian manatees are there? Are they close to extinction?
No, not really. That's hard to say. I wish I could give you more hard facts on that. ... They're critically endangered, but as far as being extinct, they're not going to go extinct, in my opinion, if we keep working on giving back.
And by working with the younger children — some of those children having been there now nine years — they're now seniors and they're going into to collegiate programs and working for our facility. ... The elders of the villages used to believe that the manatees ate the fish. That was a really big point that we needed to explain, that they ate the aquatic plants. If the aquatic plants grow over the area, a bloom of algae ... will take all of the oxygen out of the water; then all your fish will die. That whole cycle of education we've been working on.
On some of my releases, these children would do manatee dances, like break dances, and [it's] incredible to see them excited about the animals. One year I went in, as I left the airport, they made a mascot for manatee[s] over the road because we were doing a release. It's really exciting to see the people take ownership and be excited about an animal that they never really understood before.
When you rescue the manatees, were they netted up?
They would be netted up. Typically, any baby manatee that we saw, the mother would have had a calf, they would have eaten the mother, and then we would've gotten the baby.
That's really what's tragic about it. We've gotta tell them it's not OK to eat manatee meat. There's other sustainable products out there. There's other fish, and they're not eating your fish. I think the setting of the nets and catching these great, gentle creatures was kind of easy for the fisherman. I know that in the heyday in the '50s, they would slaughter 250 manatees in a matter of two weeks.
How did BBC get involved?
The BBC looked up the Yanayacu Lake. They contacted me because I did a release in 2012 at the Pacaya Samiria Reserve. The BBC was looking for some space, and they spotted the Yanayacu Lake that I used in 2012 for one of my releases. Their editor just sent me an email that said, "Did you do this?" And I said, "I did." He said, "Do you have photos?" I said, "I do." He said what they're looking to do is to do this special where they're going to go from macro to micro, so they would film this Yanayacu Lake from satellite.
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Last time we wrote about the DWA, it was about a very negative story in the New Republic about your efforts to acquire rare pygmy sloths from Panama. Has your reputation improved since? Do you think the BBC documentary will help?
Well I was doing all of this before. ... I've been doing conservation since I opened up DWA in 1992, all around the world. And that particular article was written by a gentleman that took a whole year to basically study my business, study me, harass my staff. ... If you look at the [pygmy] sloth, I was approached by the Panamanian government, just like Peru, to intervene and help figure out if these animals were indeed an distinct species, so that they could be introduced to other island sloth, especially the pygmy sloth on the island of Isla Escudo. It's very related to other sloths on nearby islands.
The Panamanian government asked my help for seven years, and then the number got lower and lower. They are the ones who pushed me to do that, and I basically stepped away from it at the time because it wasn't worth it.
We put $500,000 a year [into] conservation from our facility ... . I've been in business 25 years now; we've put over $10 million back into centers and rescues. We've tagged jaguars in Brazil; we've tagged harpies and released them in Venezuela. I can't say that article represented what I do. I think it was very biased.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.