Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VI No. 3 July 1997


Amazon River Dolphins in Texas?

by William Rossiter


The Dallas World Aquarium is expected to again submit a permit to the National Marine Fisheries Service soon to import four Amazon River dolphins, or botos (Inia geoffrensis), that will be taken from Venezuela's Orinoco River. As a firestorm of protest from scientists and environmental groups first erupted over the issue, the first permit application was returned as "incomplete", the April capture plans were delayed, and Britain's Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society is coordinating the growing response from organizations like CSI. However, direct appeals by literally thousands of people to the Aquarium's owner, Daryl Richardson, have had no apparent effect. Mr. Richardson, a caterer, entrepreneur, and tropical fish enthusiast, opened the aquarium in 1992, and seems to believe that the display of such a species is simply good business. The opportunity to display an exotic marine mammal might be expected to be highly profitable, and include the commercial implications as a source of captive-born Inia for the display industry. There is no scientific justification for the capture or captive breeding of this species. Also planned for the "Orinoco - Secrets of the River" display are selected species chosen more for flashy appeal than as representatives of the ecosystem. Venezuela's reaction to the controversy has been the usual zero tolerance for public debate on marine mammal conservation issues. That government seems far happier to sell dolphins than to study them. If approved, the dolphins will be captured by an American team and held at the J.V. Seijas Aquarium in Valencia until they can be imported to the Dallas, Texas aquarium and restaurant. Additional rumors include Chicago's Shedd Aquarium planning an exhibit of five Inia by 2000, and a Norwalk, California plan to place thirty Inia in a three mile long exhibit.

Why are so many experts opposed to the capture of these river dolphins?

First, throughout its range the Inia is listed as "threatened" by CITES, and as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This category is defined as a species facing high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future. Inia face numerous threats throughout their range, including accidental capture in fishing gear, degradation of habitat, construction of dams and pollution from industrial and agricultural development. Those few stocks that have been studied show sharp declines from human impacts.

Second, there is no reliable data on the current status of Inia in the Orinoco. The population is geographically and reproductively isolated; a distinct subspecies, Inia geoffrensis humboltiana, genetically distinct from the two other populations found in the Amazon Basin, I. g. geoffrensis, and the upper Madeira river, I. g. boliviensis. The vulnerable status of Inia and known threats to the survival of the Orinoco population raise significant questions about the detrimental impacts of the proposed capture.

Third, the capture of threatened creatures from a country such as Venezuela, beset by economic difficulties and low priorities for conservation issues, sets an extremely bad precedent and reflects poorly on the professed commitment of the Dallas World Aquarium to the conservation of threatened wildlife species. The precedent would enable an expansion of facilities exhibiting Inia, multiplying the impacts on the wild populations significantly.

Fourth, this population is known to have an extraordinarily strong social system, and is reported to fight to exhaustion and death to protect other group members. To remove five dolphins from the Orinoco River population means the physical capture of many others in a selection process, with a permanent impact on family and social groups.

Fifth, Inia are well adapted for their life in the fresh waters of Latin America, but have a terrible survival record in captivity. Since 1956, over 100 Inia have been taken into captivity. About 70 individuals were imported into the United States. One is still alive there, and three others survive in Germany and Venezuela. The life span of the over 100 Inia displayed in the last forty years has been less than half of the wild population.

Sixth, Inia are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity: A great deal of sexual aggression by males towards females has been observed in captivity, to the point that animals have had to be separated and some have died due to injuries and stress related to sexual aggression. Even with a major effort to create a rain forest display that satisfies the public, the Aquarium cannot duplicate the habitat of the Inia. This requires a great deal more than shallow water.

When the permit application is filed there will be a thirty day public comment period, after which NMFS will decide whether or not to approve. If you wish to comment during this period please contact Ann D. Terbush, Chief, Permits Division, National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Species, 1335 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910 USA.


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