Safety in num­bers

En­dan­gered sea cows are well cared for at Peru’s Ama­zon Mana­tee Res­cue Cen­tre

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KEN­DALL HILL

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

ALAMY

A carer feeds a baby Ama­zo­nian mana­tee

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