This article, by Antonio José Paz Cardona, was originally published by Mongabay.
— Cattle ranching and marsh draining for agriculture, along with climate variability, have caused water levels to decrease, which in turn increases these endangered manatees’ risk of becoming stranded.
— A community-based monitoring program is providing unprecedented data on Antillean manatee habitat sites, and the goal now is to learn more about the behavior and current state of the region’s largest aquatic mammal.
“Manatees are found where the water is deep. Wherever they are found, water is plentiful. If this precious animal becomes extinct, we will run out of water,” says Eduardo Portilla, a fisher from the municipality of Barrancabermeja, Santander.
He is part of the RVM network, an initiative bringing together people with different backgrounds in the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia to achieve a common goal: saving this enormous and fascinating aquatic mammal from extinction.
Some strategic partnerships for dealing with emergencies had already been established in Santander back in 2010, but the network was formally created in September 2023 and expanded to several municipalities in Antioquia, César and Bolívar.
Regional environmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations and local communities are all involved in the network. Part of their mission involves rescuing manatees, which frequently get stuck in streams, rivers and swamps.
As well as this, the group has set up a 24-hour emergency response contact number (+57 322-983-8738) where anyone can report a manatee in distress.
Between January 2010 and July 2023, several environmental organizations were in involved in responding to 40 emergencies where Antillean manatees (Trichechus manatus manatus) had become stranded or stuck.
The Antillean manatee is classified as endangered by the IUCN’s Red List.
Stranded manatee emergencies have occurred principally in the department of Santander (52.5%), especially in Ciénaga de Paredes, located between the municipalities of Puerto Wilches and Sabana de Torres, as well as in the municipalities of Barrancabermeja, Cimitarra and Puerto Parra.
The department of Antioquia comes in second place (17.5%), particularly the municipality of Yondó. It is followed by the Bolívar department, with 17.5%, concentrated in the municipality of Simití, and the department of César (12%), especially in the municipalities of Aguachica and San Martín.
Among the most concerning data is that 12.5% of the 40 incidents reported were classified as mass strandings in which two or more manatees were found trapped. The highest number was recorded in 2020, within the El Totumo (Antioquia) Cenotage Complex, with 36 live manatees stranded. The second-highest was reported in 2010 in Ciénaga de Paredes (Santander), with 12 stranded manatees. A total of 31 manatees died in a 13-year period.
An aquatic mammal facing a slew of challenges
The manatee is the largest aquatic mammal in the marshes and rivers of the Magdalena Medio, and its presence benefits both the water quality and flora and fauna. As a purely herbivorous animal, it balances out the plant populations it consumes, and its feces contain many nutrients for fish, says biologist Katerin Arévalo, a scientist from the organization Cabildo Verde who has extensive experience of working with manatees in the region.
Even the way manatees swim is important for the integrity of the waters they inhabit. “Manatees swim up and down, and their flattened tails help keep the channels they swim through passable. This helps our wetlands maintain their structure below the water level,” Arévalo says.
Biologists are greatly concerned about the dwindling numbers of manatees and the loss of the benefits they bring to the ecosystem.
Several decades ago, the main threat to manatees was indiscriminate hunting for their meat. Although sporadic cases still occur, communities’ attitudes toward manatees have changed, and now other problems pose more of a risk.
Their greatest threat has been, and still is, the destruction and draining of marshes, their main habitat, for the purposes of introducing livestock or crops. At the same time, climate variabilities such as El Niño have led to a drastic decrease in water levels in these huge bodies of water, increasing the manatees’ risk of becoming unexpectedly beached.
Incidents can also occur when (mainly young) manatees get trapped in trammel nets — gear typically used in bottom fishing that is usually placed by the shore overnight, to be lifted out in the morning.
“These nets also keep them away from their feeding areas because they are usually located along the shoreline, generating a kind of wall between the manatees and the plants they eat. The trammel nets also cross the channels through which they pass, forcing them to look for other areas, with their habitat becoming smaller and smaller,” says Arévalo.
Incidents of manatees becoming stranded or trapped are becoming more and more frequent. For this reason, experts stress that any organization or person who comes across a manatee in danger should call their hotline or send a WhatsApp message to report it, giving details of the situation the animal is in.
“We are talking about saving individuals with a view to protecting entire populations. Having a tool to help support them, even though it is not perfect, that facilitates rescue planning and communication, is vital,” says Carlos Saavedra, species coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Colombia, which is part of the RVM.
Working together to save an endangered species
When someone reports a stranded or trapped manatee, three teams immediately spring to action: operational, technical-scientific and outreach, the latter of which is responsible for determining what actions should be taken. The groups decide among themselves, depending on the location of the manatee in difficulty, who will lead the rescue mission.
Saavedra says the first thing the reporting person or organization is asked to do is to observe the manatee and its environment, so they can provide as much information as possible about the situation. While emergency personnel travel to the scene, the team provides instructions to the person reporting the emergency in how to prepare what is needed to facilitate the arrival of the qualified personnel, the on-site care and the possible transfer of the manatee.
“Any individual animal we can rescue is a gain for the whole species,” Saavedra says.
Regional environmental agencies and local communities have made available emergency kits to help provide initial assistance to injured and stranded manatees until professional care arrives.
This collaboration between biologists and communities was one of the most important factors that led to the creation of the RVM. “People have begun to love the manatee. As well as loving it, they now know more about it, and want to know more about it. The report of a sick, stuck or even dead animal is very important because we can acquire more knowledge about manatees that will help us protect them. The communities have really developed a great sense of ownership of the manatee,” Arévalo says.
This is demonstrated in the training that has been going on for several months within communities in rural areas, such as El Totumo and El Descanso (Yondó, Antioquia), Riberas del San Juan (Cimitarra, Santander), Bocas del Carare and La Sierra (Puerto Parra, Santander), Campo Amalia, (Aguachica, César), and in areas close to marshes such as Paredes (between Puerto Wilches and Sabana de Torres, Santander).
Before, when communities found a manatee entangled in a net, many would try to cut it out to help free it. But now they have learned it is better to wait for expert help, as it is sometimes necessary to give the manatee medical attention before releasing it completely; it may be injured or have physical damage that is not evident to the naked eye.
“I have seen two dead manatees, but we have also found several stranded and have been able to pull them out because we have been taught how to do it, and we have a toolkit,” says Eduardo Portilla, a member of the Barrancabermeja Fishermen’s Association.
Monitoring provides unprecedented data
Portilla is part of the Magdalena Medio RVM and is one of more than 50 community monitors guided by the WCS and the environmental organization Cabildo Verde. One of the tasks they carry out, says Portilla, is the monitoring of areas where manatee strandings have previously occurred, so the animals involved in new incidents have a better chance of survival.
One of these areas, Portilla tells us, is the Sardinata swamp, in Yondó. This happens because manatees have to travel through several streams until they reach the Magdalena River, but on their return, connectivity is often lost because the streams are dry. Here, they end up beached and often die.
Monitoring is carried out during fishing activity. The fishers complete a form where they record whether they were able to directly observe the manatees, but they have also been trained to recognize indirect traces that indicate the animals’ presence, such as feces, feeding areas and the shadows made by diving manatees.
“We began monitoring in December last year with 57 people from eight communities. We put together a spreadsheet of information: where the fishing was done, what time the fishing started, what time it ended and whether the water was high, medium or low.
The form is filled out even if no manatees were seen, because their detectability is very low. Not seeing one does not mean that manatees were not in the area,” says Leonor Valenzuela, coordinator of analysis and synthesis at WCS Colombia, an organization that supports the monitoring work and the RVM.
Between December 2022 and June 2023, some 1,924 hours of monitoring were reported in 22 bodies of water — swamps, rivers and streams — and although it was originally thought that manatees had not swum through the Magdalena River, their presence has been confirmed on two occasions.
“The fishermen told us, ‘Yes, they are in the river; it is just more difficult to observe them in the river than elsewhere. They may not be there all the time, but they are moving through it,” Valenzuela says.
Valenzuela goes on to say that monitoring has confirmed the presence of manatees in 16 of the 22 bodies of water where fishing activity has taken place. “We have 80 records of manatees — 18 direct records and 62 indirect records — meaning they saw their feces, feeding areas or something else that allowed us to identify that the manatee was, or is, there.”
The sites with the highest number of records were Caño Peruetano, Ciénaga de Paredes, Ciénaga Quimbay and Río Viejito.
Valenzuela says one of the things that has surprised biologists the most is the communities’ interest in the monitoring.
“The villagers know that they really are part of the process, and that their work is not limited to just passing data to us. They are seen as local researchers, and that has meant a lot to them,” says Valenzuela, adding that the fishers have told them they don’t want to stop the monitoring.
In fact, the community now wants to do a deeper analysis, not only to determine where the manatees are, but to understand how the species’ population patterns change in relation to whether the water is high or low. This will provide the communities with insight into how the manatee behaves in the Magdalena Medio marsh complex.
“At the local level, we are already finding out where the Magdalena Medio manatees are. Now we need to know how they are doing, which is a huge priority,” says Arévalo.