18 | NOV | 2019
From poachers to guardians: saving manatees in Mexico
A number of manatees with their calves swim – Photo: Red Huber/AP

From poachers to guardians: saving manatees in Mexico

09/11/2019
14:29
Mexico City
Citlali Aguilera
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How could a biologist turn manatee poachers into their most loving guardians?

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Some years ago, Blanca Cortina introduced me to Juventino. It was my chance to see a manatee for the first time. We got on a boat that sailed the waters of the lagoon system of Alvarado, Veracruz, a wetland of international relevance. During the journey, we saw birds fly and we heard the sound of animals hidden in the mangroves, dense with green vegetation.

At our arrival in Nacaste, people warmly welcomed “Blanquita,” as they call the biologist and conservationist from the Biological Research Institute (IIB) of the Veracruz University (UV) and who coordinates the actions of conservation, protection, and management of manatees, a species in danger of extinction according to the Official Mexican Standard 059-Semarnat-2010 and by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List (IUCN).

Back then, Juventino was almost two years old and floated placidly in a pond tank where the people of the town, with advice from the UV, rehabilitated and took care of him 24/7 since they found him at just three weeks old. How is it possible for a biologist to have turned manatee poachers into their most loving guardians? This is the story.

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Aquatic giants
Just as golden eagles, black bears, and jaguars, manatees are considered umbrella species. Umbrella species are the living things that, due to their biologic characteristics, help to protect other species as well as the ecosystems where they live. In addition, they are indicators of their habit’s health. Since manatees are herbivores, they are natural controllers of vegetable plagues and their manure fertilizes the aquatic soil.

Scientifically know as Trichechus manatus manatus, it is the only aquatic herbivore mammal. It feeds from aquatic grasses, algae, and lilies. It lives in rivers, lagoons, and areas with mangroves and cenotes.

In the American continent, it is distributed in the tropical area from Florida, in the United States, going through Mexico (Tamaulipas, Tabasco, Veracruz, Campeche, Chiapas, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo) up to the Amazon River in Brazil, where another species lives, the Trichechus inunguis.

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They are real giants, for they can be up to three meters long and weigh between 500 and 800 kilograms, but there are registries of specimens of up to a tonne. They are gray, although people usually see them with a green back, as an effect created by algae. Their voluminous bodies have a flattened tail fin in the shape of a spoon and two flippers with three claws each to hold food.

In the face, they have a big prehensile superior lip divided into two with which they cut aquatic plants to chew them with their molars, the only teeth they have. In addition, on each of their nasal orifices, they have a valve that opens when they need to breathe on the surface. Manatees can live for 60 years. They are harmless and lead a lonely life, although they can be seen in groups when feeding and mating. They have a gestational period of 12 to 13 months and the cub is cared for by the mother for two or three years. The females have mammary glands in the armpits with a huge nipple to which the cubs attach.

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The blades of harpoons and knives
In the case of this area in Veracruz, poachers’ harpoons and knives have been the reason that has put manatees on the verge of extinction up to the point where they are seldom seen. Enrique Portilla Ochoa, biologist and Blanca’s mentor, documented that during the 1940s and 1950s, between 14 and 17 manatees were hunted per month in this region. A common practice that was carried out until 2000. The reason for the hunt was to feed on them: “They collected a lot of fat; with the meat, they prepared different meals, like barbacoa and tamales; the skin was used too; with the bones, they made flour and handles for knives and machetes. When they hunted it, they used all its parts,” Blanca says.

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Education for conservation
“How am I going to change the way of living of those who hunt? Where do I start?” questioned herself the biologist and winner of the 2005 Environment State Award when in 1999, the UV and Pronatura A.C. appointed her as coordinator of environmental education strategies of the Manatee Conservation Project of the Alvarado Lagoon System. It was the beginning of a series of strategies to create alternative sources of income for the inhabitants of the area, such as the project of fishing cooperatives. With them, people would be able to earn money and they would not need to resort to poaching manatees for food. At the same time, she gave workshops about the importance of the aquatic mammal.

Little by little, things started to change. Today, instead of hunting them, people take care of them and report their sightings to the UV or to Mexico’s Environmental Prosecutor (Profepa), the information is used by scientists to register the areas where manatees feed and mate, or to rescue them if they are hurt or in danger.

“It is amazing to watch those who were poachers talk to children about the importance of taking care of them,” says Blanca with her eyes full of joy and admiration.

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Iron will
Juventino was sentenced to death for it was an orphaned baby. However, the community adopted it and took care of him for three years so that it could be freed in the lagoon where it was born. These actions have made Profepa appoint the community of Nacaste and Costa de San Juan as the Local Committee for Manatees Conservation. “The next goal is to build a manatees rehabilitation and reincorporation center,” says Blanca as she points out that they need continuous support and commitment from the UV, NGOs, Veracruz’s Aquarium, the government, and anyone who wants to help.

Blanca is a tenacious, brave, and loving woman. Her commitment to manatees conservation and with the communities they inhabit comes from authentic passion and commitment to respecting life. Her conviction changes those who listen to her. It has been her actions as a leader of a great team, as well as the power of her environmental education what has made possible to turn into outstanding guardians those who used to use harpoons.

“I will not rest until the manatee is out of the list of animals in danger of extinction,” she tells me as I witness in the iron will in her eyes.

Have you heard of the mysterious manatee deaths in Mexico?

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