This is the latest post in the Colombia Blog Series by Colombia Photo Expeditions, in which Kike Calvo profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on Colombia related to journalism, ecotourism, science, exploration and photography.
Fernando Trujillo is a Colombian marine biologist from the University Jorge Tadeo Lozano and the scientific director of the Omacha foundation. He has been working with special conservation for 30 years with endangered species such as river dolphins. You may have heard his name watching Mark Grieco’s new documentary ‘A River Below’, where he stars with Rasmussen, in a story that captures the Amazon in all its complexity as it examines the actions of environmental activists using the media in an age where truth is a relative term. But for me, Trujillo falls into a dear category of friendship, where our stories were connected years ago by sinking together in the Amazon in the middle of the night, while attending a conference for pink dolphin operators in Iquitos. But that is another story.
Fernando Trujillo completed a Masters in Environmental Sciences at the University of Greenwich in London and a PhD in Zoology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He has been the principal Investigator in most of the projects the Omacha Foundation has carried out in the Orinoco and the Amazon. He has extensive experience in research and conservation of endangered species, with emphasis on aquatic mammals, and management of priority ecosystems. Growing up, he saw a lot of nature and biodiversity in Colombia, and was influenced, like many Spanish speakers like myself, by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente.
Trujillo refers to the river pink dolphins as “water jaguars”. They are not only mythical animals, but also an unknown species for many of us. He was inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s words during a Conference at his local university, before Cousteau embarked on his Expedition of the Amazonia. Soon after Trujillo began his own exploration career in Puerto Narino, when he was only 19 years old.
In our conversations, I asked Fernando about special moments as a conservationist. It is clear he loves the childlike curiosity of science. “It is a difficult question because I have had very pleasant moments.” said Trujillo. “During many expeditions I have had the opportunity to be near to large populations of animals that I didnt expect to find. For example, when we made ‘A River Below’ we were in Brazil and it was a magical moment to be surrounded by 7 or 8 dolphins swimming around us for more than five hours. That was a very special feeling.” “It has also been very pleasant to see the happiness of the indigenous children when we take them to see the dolphins,” said Trujillo. “When we started these activities, the children were very afraid of the dolphins. For them, dolphins were sacred animals. Children were really scared when these wild animals came out of the water. But with some time, everyone became excited to have them so close, quickly understanding that these were not dangerous animals. The enjoyment of the indigenous children watching the dolphins is probably one of the most special moments that I have had experience as a conservationist.”
But obviously, not every experience has been a possitive one he explained. “On certain occasions we find dead dolphins,” said Trujillo. “We bring up fishing nets and we encounter entangled dolphins; other times, we get close to shore and we see a lot of vultures feeding on dead dolphins. These are sad moments.”
“Another sad moment that I remember happened about twenty years ago,” said Trujillo. “I remember that a group of fishermen came to us, saying that two dolphins had gotten entangled in a net. We went to the location as quicky as we could. When we got into the flooded forest, we saw that the mother had died and the little one had been tied by a fisherman to a tree. The animal in order to breathe had to throw itself out of the water using his tail, cutting it with every attempt for survival. I let him go using a machete, and took him to a pool that was abandoned on a close by farm. The pool was in very bad condition. Dirty environment for an stressed animal, but the only location available. That night I could not slee. I remember that the next day I went to see how the dolphin was doing. I wanted to change the water. When I got there I found that the children in the area liked to fish piranhas and throw them into that pool. During the night the piranhas had bitten the dolphin. We decided to take the dolphin out the pool. Our decision back then was to free the baby dolphin with another mother also who had a baby. I thought it could be an opportunity, but two days later, we found the dead dolphin. That day I vowed to build a biological station to control those situations.”
Trujillo has done extensive work with indigenous People. Dolphins are sacred animals for the indigenous communities. They are considered the owners of the water, as Trujillo explained to journalist Dario Arizmendi on a previous interview. They talk about submerged cities. In their beliefs river dolphins should not be hunted or eaten, as they are like human beings that transformed underwater. For many years now, Omacha Foundation has supported local artisans in the creation of wooden dolphin carvings. Today, more than 400 families benefit from these activities. The indigenous people Trujillo worked with began to call him “Omacha”, the word for pink dolphin in the Ticuna Amazon Indian language.
“Something I have learned from the indigineous is that we have to take into account the things that happened with the species in the medium and long term and not only in the short term,” said Trujillo. “The indigenous know very well the pulses of flood, the temporalities in the basins of the Amazon and they know that a dolphin or another species can be very abundant at an specific time of the year. They use to change their habitat according to the availability of food . Those are some things that I have learned from the Indigineous. Basically, to look at things in a much more integral perspective.”
“I remember when I asked the indigenous people about their mythology about the dolphins. Soon they started telling me stories about the “Martines Pescadores,” said Trujillo. “I thought they did’nt understand what I was talking about. I kept interrupting them, telling them that I was asking for stories about dolphins not birds. They told me ‘yes, we are telling you the story of the dolphins, but it is important that you understand the other elements before we get to the dolphins.’ That really surprised me.”
“Another thing that I have learned from the indigenous people is to be patient,” said Trujillo. “As a scientist we are very accelerated and we want to get data in a short time.”
Fernando Trujillo is part of the group of specialists of Small Cetaceans of the IUCN, and he was the president of the Latin American Society of Aquatic Mammal Specialists (SOLAMAC) from 2006 to 2008.
I asked Fernando about the new documentary ‘A River Below’. “I think it’s not just a movie about dolphins, it’s more of a universal documentary,” said Trujillo. “In the movie we talk about how complex it is to do conservation, especially in developing countries and in particular, in such a large region as the Amazon, where there is very little presence of the state. Watching the movie, people will find ethical issues and conflicts in conservation being presented. And this is a universal situation. I think that’s why the movie has been accepted so much internationally and has received so many awards. It is because we not only share a story about the dolphins in the Amazon, but a story about all the economic agents involved, their political interests and much more.
Fernando Trujillo is well aware of Colombia Photo Expeditions, my new ecotourism agency in Colombia, bringing travelers to remote locations in the country. “Tourism can be a double-edged sword,” said Trujillo. “It may be an opportunity. For example, with the peace agreements many colombians and international tourists can get into regions that were totally no go zones. A new frontier opens up with high biodiversity. But it is important we take into account the carrying capacity of some of these places. We should not over do it, and we should approach ecotourism the right way. In the case of the Amazon dolphins, they are generating 8.3 million dollars a year from those who visit just a few miles up river just to see dolphins. In this cases, I think it can be potentially very useful.”
Colombia has had a unique and complex political history, and many Colombians adapted in many ways to the situations created by the armed conflict. “During the time when the FARC was very active, we never stopped working in the field,” said Trujillo. “We ended up in places where there was a lot of guerrilla presence. I particularly remember 1994, when we went to the Guaviare River with a Dutch team. A few days before our expedition, the Ministry of Defense warned us that it was very dangerous to enter the area, advising the risk of kidnapping to these foreigners back then. We had to change the itinerary and visit another river. We ended up in the Caqueta River.”
“I had to wait twenty-two years to finally explore the Guaviare river,” said Trujillo. “We were waiting for the right moment. Six hours after the peace-agreement with the FARC was signed, we entered the Guaviare River and traveled a total of 1080 km. It was a river with incredible conditions and with a lot of biodiversity. We were very happy to have finally entered into that river.”
“As you know well Kike, Colombia is a mega diverse country,” said Trujillo. “We have the highest biodiversity indexes on the planet. But we have problems of loss of habitat and connectivity. The main cause of habitat loss has been the intensive cattle raising that was promoted in the 1930s as a state policy. In this way, large cattle ranches were created with an unprofitable, economical and not sustainable cattle raising scheme. We could well say that cattle ranches have destroyed a considerable amount of habitats.”
“A new study shows that more than 2 million hectares could be being used for cattle farming,” said Trujillo. “But the reality is that 14 million hectares are being used for these kind of activities. Clearly, the carrying capacity of the Colombian land for cattle raising has exceded its limit.”
“The Second big problem comes from large forest crops,” said Trujillo. “Rice is generating an impressive impact because it is drying our wetlands. They are contaminated with agrochemicals and the impact is quite strong.
When cultivation of soybeans, palms and eucalyptus pines began to develop in the country, it was badly done because they basically cutted native forests to implement these palm crops. Today, there are much stricter regulatory policies.
“Of course, I should mention the issue of deforestation in the Andes as one of the biggest conservation concerns in the country, because the entire Andean area is very deforested,” Trujillo said. “But other parts of the country also have a very strong exposure to climate change, such as the north of the Caribbean, La Guajira, Santa Marta and the Orinoco. So if the natural coverage is destroyed, the results can generate very serious connectivity problems.”
All the countries of the world should make an effort to maintain a representation of the most important natural ecosystems. In this way, we can guarantee that the ecological processes work well and also guaranteed that fish and other species can reproduce without pressure and from those protected areas can be dispersed to other areas that have been more intervened. “Colombia is one of the countries that is making big efforts with protected areas,” said Trujillo. “We already have about 13% of the national territory protected. If we manage to validate the indigenous territories in some way for the protection of natural resources, we could say that the country would be protected by 43%. In Colombia we have key sites. We have more or less 56 to 61 protected areas, plus private reserves in which the topic of ecosystem and species conservation is being promoted. There are emblematic sites such as Chiribiquete National Park that has almost 3 million hectares, and the idea is to extend it to 5 million hectares. We can also talk about Caño Cristales or the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. We also have National Parks in the Amazon, in the Andean zone and in the Caribbean. Although I personally believe we should consolidate more protected areas in the Orinoquia.”
On 10 May 2007, Trujillo received the Whitley Gold Award for its work for the conservation of river dolphins in the Royal Geographical Society of London (England), ceremony presided over by Princess Anne and the British naturalist David Attenborough. This award is one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the international arena.
To end up our conversation we talked about the future of the pink dolphin populations in the Amazon. “The situation of the dolphins is currently worrying,” said Trujillo. “A few years ago dolphins were in a vulnerable category. Today, things have change and they are going to come out as a critically endangered species. The population is decreasing more than 10% per year. This means that in 10-20 years, there will be almost no dolphins in those regions. What we see is that the threats are not going to decrease, because they are not going to stop building hydroelectric plants; they are not going to stop polluting with mercury; they are not going to stop deforesting; so this means that the dolphins’ habitat is very threatened, and tnumbers of these animals will surely decrease unless we make very strong and prompt decisions to solve it.”