Mar. 11, 2002 FORT PIERCE, FL., March 8, 2002 - A baby manatee that was at one time bottle-fed by Colombian soldiers is back in the Colombian Amazon after almost three years of care and rehabilitation, thanks in part to the efforts of a HARBOR BRANCH scientist and a unique conservation outreach program. The Amazonian manatee, named “Airuwe” by his caretakers, was only a few months old when he became tangled in a net and injured near the tiny village of Puerto Narino in the Colombian Amazon in 1998.
Dr. Greg Bossart, Director of the HARBOR BRANCH Division of Marine Mammal Research and Conservation and a world-renown expert on manatees, was invited by several conservation organizations, including the Save The Manatee Club, to travel to the area shortly after Airuwe was caught, to help establish a rehabilitation program with the goal of eventually returning the manatee to the wild.
“This is all part of our on-going conservation outreach programs involving the medical care and rehabilitation of manatees that have been established in Guyana, Brazil, Trinidad, Colombia, Belize and Mexico,” Dr. Bossart said.
“This is one example of how successful these kinds of programs can be not only in rehabilitating these animals but also in helping to establish conservation programs that teach people in other parts of the world how to conserve all their resources for the benefit of their communities and their neighbors,” Dr. Bossart added.
The entire community came together to care for Airuwe after he was brought to the Omacha Foundation, which has a dolphin research program but had never cared for a manatee prior to the young manatee’s arrival.
In addition to the injuries from the net, Airuwe was dehydrated and malnourished, basically “starving to death,” according to Dr. Bossart.
“They had him in a lake, and we had to get him into a smaller, contained pool of water where people could control his movements and take care of him. He had to be bottle-fed every four hours, and there just wasn’t any type of facility there set up to take care of him,” Dr. Bossart said.
That is, until the mayor of the community stepped in.
“He had this 500-gallon cistern that gathered rain water, and that was the drinking water for his family. He turned over the use of his cistern for the care of this young manatee, which of course meant his family had to get their drinking water from somewhere else,” Dr. Bossart said.
The next problem was finding enough people to mount round-the-clock care and bottle-feeding every four hours. At first, the director of the Omacha Foundation thought it would be impossible.
That’s when the Colombian military stepped in, with many soldiers volunteering to help in the efforts to feed and care for Airuwe.
For two years, the Foundation and community worked together, eventually moving Airuwe into a larger pool, weaning him off the bottle and onto natural vegetation, and then moving him into a lake.
On February 8th of this year Airuwe was examined by Brazilian veterinarian Marcia Picanco, fitted with a belt-mounted transmitter, and set free in the Tarapoto lake system in the Colombian Amazon.
For the first 10 days he moved back and forth through channels in the flooded forest to nearby lakes, returning to the release point from time to time, eating aquatic grasses and plants. Scientists continue to track the young manatee, and Dr. Bossart says it’s a success story, not only for the manatee, but also for the community of Puerto Narino, the Omacha Foundation, and the Manatee Outreach Program.
Dr. Bossart says the care of orphaned manatees like Airuwe is the most common situation the outreach program faces. It involves on-site visits and training, consultations via the internet and telephone, and even air delivery of medical supplies, natural manatee milk, artificial milk formulas and manatee immunoglobulins. On 10 occasions, the outreach program has provided on-site visitations.
It shows the emerging importance of the role a wildlife veterinarian can play in helping to save endangered species, as well as helping to promote conservation programs around the world.
HARBOR BRANCH Oceanographic Institution, Inc., is one of the world’s leading nonprofit oceanographic research organizations dedicated to exploration of the earth’s oceans, estuaries and coastal regions for the benefit of mankind.
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