Lake Tarapoto: Piranhas and pink dolphins lure visitors to this Colombian lake

(CNN) — Pink dolphins, piranhas and black caiman. It sounds like a legend, but in fact they are the inhabitants of a protected wetlands system in the Amazon, home to thousands of rare animal species and fascinating stories of tribal gods turning humans into dolphins.

Storytelling is part of the culture for the indigenous groups living in the Amazon rainforest, and the wetlands play an important role in the yarns that have been spun for centuries. The stories told by the Ticuna people are no different; one in particular involves a pink dolphin disguised in human form who attends the tribe’s traditional festivities to enchant women who become enamored with this tall, strange man. He then takes her to the river and turns her into a dolphin as well.

But the waters of the Lagos de Tarapoto aren’t just home to tall tales. They are such an important habitat for animal species that they were granted protected status in 2018, following a five-year battle over a petition for international recognition of the wetlands by the Swiss conservation organization Ramsar.

Visitors can take guided boat trips in Lake Tarapoto.

Thanks to Sergio Leon-Ecodestinos

Scientists have been researching the wetlands — including Lake Tarapoto and a network of other waterways — for years. The lake is fed by the Amazon River and is connected to numerous smaller lakes by a complex system of creeks.

Experts have identified as many as 900 plant species, 300 bird species, 176 fish, 56 reptiles, 46 mammals and 30 amphibians. Spanning 400 square kilometers, the wetlands have one of the highest river dolphin presences in the Colombian Amazon.

Recently, Omacha, along with WWF and with the help of local groups, started a satellite monitoring project of Amazonian cetaceans.

The wetlands are an important place for dolphin breeding, as well as a fish farm – an essential source of food and income for the 22 indigenous communities living in the region. The pirarucu fish, one of the largest freshwater fish, is a species of arapaima, which is native to the Amazon River. They have been an important food source for indigenous communities for centuries and are eaten fresh, dried or salted – and can grow up to 3 meters in length.

Fish and tourism are important sources of income for local indigenous communities.

Fish and tourism are important sources of income for local indigenous communities.

Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Tourism and conservation at work

The indigenous communities also depend on tourism for their income and preserving this water system means they can have a sustainable income for years to come. Visitors to the region can hire local Indigenous guides to cruise with them around the lake and through the river networks, pointing out animals and explaining the historical importance of the site.

The wetland region is best known for Lake Tarapoto, a 37-square-mile body of water that is a short drive from Puerto Nariño, a city in the Amazonas region of Colombia, located on the edge of the Amazon River.

Tourists who reach the remote region flock to the lake hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare pink dolphin or try their hand at piranha fishing. The Centro de Interpratación Ambiental Natütama, run by a non-profit organization, offers a wealth of information about the pink dolphin and manatee.

There is still no consensus as to why the pink dolphin is pink, as some mammals, known locally as “boto”, remain gray. The coloring varies, with adult males being perhaps the most pink, experts suspect, because they fight a lot — and it’s their scar tissue that’s pink. Another theory is that they camouflage themselves to match the red mud that appears in some rivers after heavy rains.

Tourists flock to the area hoping to spot rare pink dolphins.  The river dolphin is pictured here in the Amazon River in neighboring Brazil.

Tourists flock to the area hoping to spot rare pink dolphins. The river dolphin is pictured here in the Amazon River in neighboring Brazil.

Schafer & Hill/Moment Mobile RF/Getty Images

Although you can swim in the lakes, they are full of piranhas, so perhaps check with your guide before taking a dip.

The motorized boats once involved in some trips, as well as logging, hunting and overfishing, threatened the biodiversity of the wetland complex, so scientists joined forces with local indigenous groups inhabiting the area to petition Ramsar, the Swiss conservation organization, to declare Tarapoto a “wetland of international importance” in 2018. The area is the first wetland area in the Colombian Amazon to achieve such status.

“Wetlands with Ramsar status are internationally recognized for their unique biodiversity and natural resource properties, and must be conserved and used sustainably to maintain their quality and durability over time. Large-scale mining and major infrastructure construction cannot be performed on Ramsar- locations,” says Saulo Usma, freshwater specialist at WWF Colombia.

Visitors who want to experience the lake can stay in Puerto Nariño, a small town of 6,000 residents, mostly indigenous, that touts itself as an ecological community. No cars or motorized vehicles of any kind are allowed in the city – meaning all tours are done with wooden boats.

The city is accessible by plane from Bogotá, Medellín or Cartagena. Accommodation and facilities are basic, but it’s a wonderful starting point to explore all that the Amazonas region has to offer, and a chance to experience the indigenous culture to the fullest.

Conservation is a priority in the area.  The wetlands received protected status in 2018.

Conservation is a priority in the area. The wetlands received protected status in 2018.

Thanks to Sergio Leon-Ecodestinos

Working with the locals to protect the wetlands

Designating the site as protected means there is an opportunity to fund conservation projects, according to local community leaders.

“The designation of Tarapoto Lakes as a Ramsar site is an opportunity to enhance, protect and conserve our natural, cultural and social resources,” said Lilia Isolina Java Tapayuri, community leader of the Cocama ethnic group.

Cooperation with the local indigenous groups has been an essential part of the conservation process. Sinchi Institute, another of the Colombian environmental groups that have worked together to protect the lake, has worked with local fishermen to ensure they are involved.

A view of the Lagos de Tarapoto wetland complex in the Amazonas department of Colombia.

A view of the Lagos de Tarapoto wetland complex in the Amazonas department of Colombia.

Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

“Sinchi has contributed to the development of the management plan for the site,” says Amazonian biologist Mariela Osorno. “We’ve also mentored fishermen from the Tarapoto system, training them to collect data, monitor community and fisheries use of the area.”

The institute also works with communities to produce a bird guide to the area, as well as train villagers so they can use their skills to start bird-focused tourism businesses.

“Participants were trained in bird-watching methods, species identification and use of bird guides,” explains Osorno, adding that Sincha has also worked with locals to translate bird names into the native languages ​​of the areas. track down.

“It is essential to promote their conservation and proper management, to ensure the sustainability of the genetic wealth of species, ecosystems and landscapes, and to enhance the culture and knowledge of the indigenous communities that inhabit them, especially the Ticuna (also known as the Maguta), Cocama and Yagua ethnic groups.”

If you get the chance to visit this beautiful and underdeveloped corner of the world, you will definitely leave with a renewed sense of simple living, side by side with nature.

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