Safety in numbers
Endangered sea cows are well cared for at Peru’s Amazon Manatee Rescue Centre
BABY manatee skin is the colour of iron and the texture of a wetsuit. These sea cows are neoprene animals, smooth and yielding to touch, drifting in a murky tank in the Peruvian rainforest.
It is feeding time at the Amazon Manatee Rescue Centre and, while the creatures will gladly chomp a chunk of papaya or clump of sea lettuce, they go absolutely gaga for a bottle of milk. Waggle a teat above the water and a pudgy grey face with beady doll’s eyes surfaces to latch on to the synthetic nipple.
They have surprisingly powerful but short trunks (their closest land relatives are elephants) and bizarrelooking side mandibles that clamp the bottle with fierce determination. If your feet aren’t planted firmly on the tank ledge, you risk being dragged into the murk by a hulking infant oblivious to its own strength. In a tug-of-war with a baby manatee, I’m pretty sure I’d lose.
It’s such a rare privilege to get so close to sea cows. We’ve just been voyaging slowly along the Amazon for four days on the MVAria cruiser, but there was never any hope of seeing these elusive mammals in the wild. They’re notoriously shy; some researchers say manatees come up for air only under camouflage of floating vegetation.
They have no predators in the wild, only humans. We kill them for meat, maim or slaughter them with our river vessels and capture them for pets. Consequently, all three species of manatees — Amazonian, West Indian and West African — are listed as ‘‘vulnerable to extinction’’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s ‘‘red list’’. Julio Mozambite, a guide on MV Aria, sums up the situation perfectly: ‘‘Wherever humans go and put their hands in, they basically destroy the ecosystem.’’
That’s why the University of Iquitos set up the rescue centre in 2007, to care for animals orphaned by human activity. It also organises lectures and education projects to raise awareness about the endangered species. ‘‘We talk to people about the conservation and invite them here to teach them,’’ guide Edgar Leonardo explains. ‘‘We especially bring schoolchildren here because it’s easier to convert them.’’
Manatee arrivals are welcomed with an enema. Pollution can play havoc with their insides. ‘‘Sometimes they release plastic bags,’’ Leonardo says, ‘‘and a piece of gut can come out if they have ulcers.’’
Rescued animals are kept here for two to three years before being released into the wild. Infant rehabilitation depends heavily on milk. In the wild, they would suckle it from their mother’s armpits; here they rely on donations of a specific powdered formula from the Dallas World Aquarium in Texas. ‘‘In all Peru there is no special milk for the manatees because they are lactose-intolerant,’’ Leonardo says. ‘‘It’s very important because, with milk, they can grow about 2kg a week.’’
In the past four years, the Amazon Rescue Centre has released eight manatees into the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a two million hectare wilderness about 180km from the frontier city of Iquitos. The animals are monitored after release by local communities and tracked for 12 months by microchip.
This is the fate that awaits 14-month-old Santo and his two-year-old female tank-mates, Yuri and Sol. The good news is that they seem to have a strong survival instinct. During feeding, when one of them has the bottle, another will come in from behind and try to wrestle it away with its pathetic flippers. It’s a manatee food fight.
Mozambite smiles as he watches. ‘‘You can see how humble they are,’’ he says, ‘‘and how beautiful.’’ Kendall Hill was a guest of LAN Airlines and Natural Focus Safaris. ikitos.com waza.org naturalfocussafaris.com.au
A carer feeds a baby Amazonian manatee