Manatee Conservation Centre
To establish a rehabilitation facility and information centre for manatees in Venezuela
The Caribbean manatee (Trichechus manatus) is probably still as geographically widespread today as it was in the past, although much reduced in numbers. This is the result of commercial exploitation, i.e. hunting for hides, meat, and blubber oil, which began in the 16th century, together with extensive subsistence hunting. The manatee continues to decline in many areas as a consequence of more recent threats, such as pollution, habitat alteration, drowning in fish nets and damage from the propellers of powerboats. Periodic red tide blooms have also been associated with a number of manatee deaths.
In Venezuela, the manatee is found in several locations. The largest population occurs in the Orinoco river basin in the south and east of the country. A small population lives in the estuaries and along the coast of northwest Venezuela. Over the last several decades, both governmental and non-governmental agencies have attempted census projects with the hopes of better understanding the population status of the manatee in Venezuela. However, beacause of limited access to remote locations, very poor water clarity due to silt run-off, and the lack of financial resources, an accurate count of this species in Venezuela is still lacking. There have also been several educational projects undertaken but again with poor financial background.
Indians and local fishermen catch manatees for their meat, fat, and other products. Hunting tradition is slowly disappearing in Venezuela because of manatee scarcity, the difficulty of the task, and the lack of interest of younger groups; however meat is still occasionally offered at more inaccessible places The threat of intentional killing is presently being replaced by incidental human-related deaths. Entanglement in net fisheries occurs mostly in the llanos tributaries of the Orinoco, and often the trapped animals are slaughtered. Land reclamation and habitat alteration due to fisheries, agricultural, and industrial development, are certain to affect manatee populations in the near future. In some regions, the construction of dams has already altered manatee routes. Manatees are susceptible to noises produced by motorboat traffic, illegal use of explosives, seismic prospection and oil exploitation. Oil exploration with associated barge traffic and pollution is intense at Lake Maracaibo. Mangrove logging and destruction, drainage of soils and flood control projects threaten the food base of manatees in the Monagas state and Orinoco delta. The projected construction of a port for large cargo ships in Golfo de Pária will detrimentally affect one of the most pristine areas in Venezuela, which harbours important populations of manatees.
In December 1999 two newborn female manatees were incidentally captured by fishermen in northwest Venezuela. The babies were kept on board and then delivered to the authorities. Since no rescue facility existed in Venezuela, the young manatees were transported to South Park Zoo at Maracaibo, where they were placed in the only tanks available - the watering troughs of two large hoof stock exhibits. Although the animals were receiving expert care, they could not survive much longer in such housing conditions. To insure the health of the two animals at South Park Zoo and to guarantee the construction of an urgently needed aquatic mammal rescue centre, an agreement was reached and signed by different parties allowing for the two young manatees to be transferred to the Dallas World Aquarium (DWA), a Member Institution of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the USA. At DWA the animals were placed in a an exhibit that had been constructed to replicate the Orinoco River system in Venezuela. This exhibit, named "ORINOCO, Secrets of the River", is an immersion exhibit that exclusively contains the flora and fauna of Venezuela. Within the "River Exhibit" the manatees enjoyed a natural environment with plants, fish, turtles, and submerged tree trunks. The transfer of the manatees was conducted by the President of DWA, Mr. Daryl Richardson and the zoo veterinarian, aboard a privately chartered plane. The rehabilitation of the manatees at DWA was rapid. In the larger pool they were able to swim for the first time in captivity and they subsequently increase in size and weight to normal proportions for their age in a short time.
With the temporary placement of these high profile animals at DWA, an increase in visitor attendance was expected, as there are no other examples of this species being held in the south/central region of the United States. The funds gained by this increase in attendance will pay for the construction of the new Manatee Rehabilitation Centre in Venezuela, which will be located on the Orinoco River at Ciudad Bolivar. DWA will be responsible for the design and construction of the Centre, while Venezuela will provide the terrain and necessary logistical support, making this a regional, national, and international conservation project .
WAZA Conservation Project 05003 is jointly operated by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (MARN), the National Foundation of Zoological Parks and Aquariums of Venezuela (FUNPZA), the Zoological Foundation of South Park Zoo, Maracaibo and Dallas World Aquarium (USA).
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