Dolphin Therapy in the Amazon
(published 21/11/08 by the Press Association)
As stripteases go, being de-robed by a pink dolphin in the middle of the Amazon beats even the most crazy of hen nights.
Instead of gyrating around a pole in a seedy nightclub, these ‘botos’, silvery-rose coloured river dolphins native to the Amazon basin, prefer to rub themselves up against swimmers and tourists, plunging their long snouts into bathing suits and nether regions.
With their little eyes winking mischievously and their many teeth set in a permanent grin, it’s hard to be put off by their actions. But the botos are such sexual beings that Amazon natives warn young women of them coming to shore and turning into men in the middle of the night, impregnating virgins and slipping back into the water come early morning.
It might be a myth, but it hampers efforts to protect these dolphins, whose only predator is man.
Once considered one of the least threatened species of dolphin 20 years ago, the boto has now made it on to the endangered list, says the International Society for the Preservation of the Tropical Rainforest, whose Preservation of the Amazonian River Dolphin project works to encourage their safety from hunters and chemicals being dumped in the river.
Their exact numbers are unknown – botos’ habitats extend from Brazil into Peru, inclusive of the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers and their many tributaries – but the effect of their ultrasound and sonar capabilities on man is so profound that people like Igor Simoes, a physiotherapist who founded the Dolphin Therapy Centre on the Rio Ariau in 2005, have started to take note.
“Pink river dolphins have tiny eyes, so when they look at you essentially they’re seeing you in the same way that an ultrasound sees a baby in a woman’s womb,” explains Simoes.
“The ultrasound localises any problem you might have – leukaemia, depression or psycho-motoring difficulties – and works to re-balance the imbalances in your body and brain by generating endorphins that improve the functioning of glands, the secretion of hormones and blood flow.”
Although the data is still unclear, researchers at the Aqua Thought Foundation, a dolphin therapy research group, estimate that the boto’s brain – 40% larger than man’s – emits ultrasounds that work to increase the neurotransmitters in man, activating dormant areas of the brain to unlock trauma, raise self esteem and rejig the immune system up to two to 10 times faster than without the therapy.
As a result, pink river dolphins, which weigh about 90kg and are around 9ft long, have been targeted to help patients with Down’s syndrome, physical or emotional trauma and cancer – the latter in conjunction with chemotherapy.
“When my patients swim with the botos, they get more interactive and playful,” Simoes says.
His patients include sufferers of Down’s syndrome, haemophiliacs and one boy who was born with neither arms nor legs.
“I can see the effect it has on me – it energises and cures me – and the difference it makes on the kids can be seen from the very first day.”
The healing effect of the dolphins wasn’t lost on my group. We chatted nervously while waiting for the dolphins to appear in the Rio Ariau, holding up fish for them to catch.
As they sidled up to and sped past us, their rubbery but tactile skins smoothing alongside our legs and torsos, it was the dolphins who stopped for a little cuddle instead of taking the fish that shook me. I left my 20-minute session ecstatic and liberated, having hugged and kissed a handful of the grinning botos, albeit slightly worried that one dolphin seemed to concentrate most of his attention below my belt.
“Botos are very sexual beings,” Simoes laughs.
“But they are working to heal you too, no matter what your problem is.”
Doling out the physiotherapy in two hour sessions to patients for up to three years, Simoes has the experience to prove his point.
But what worries me isn’t so much their attention to my crotch as their possible extinction: locals can fetch up to 100 dollars by selling dolphin flesh to fishermen, who then use it to catch fish like piratininga, which earn big bucks on international markets.
While dolphin therapy is one way to curb such activity, the other is to give locals incentives not to cull native animal species like the pink river dolphin – a policy that the State of Amazonas, Brazil’s largest state and home to one third of its rainforest, is only now developing.
Once a rich state due to a rubber boom in the late 19th century – lending its capital Manaus the nickname ‘Paris of the Tropics’ - Amazonas suffered economically before becoming an electronics hub thanks to its free trade policies. Home now to companies like Nokia, Samsung and Sony, it’s this industry that has given Amazonas state a very low percentage of deforestation – as most of its 3.3 million inhabitants live in Manaus itself.
But it’s the Brazilians who live upriver that the State has to worry about, as logging, overfishing and farming are all money-making schemes that might bring in some reais (Brazil’s currency) but destroy a region of the world that holds 50% of its biodiversity.
To help curb this, Eduardo Braga, known as the ‘green’ Governor of the State of Amazonas, has instituted a Green Free Trade Zone to encourage locals to protect their environment while earning them some cash.
“The Green Free Trade Zone was conceived with the mission to face the social and environmental wrong turns that accompanied the state since the end of the economic cycle of rubber,” he says.
The Amazon’s unprecedented growth in the 1960s and 70s saw the expansion of cattle ranching, investments in new roads, agrarian conflicts (with hundreds of deaths resulting) and high deforestation. Nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down in just 40 years, but with states giving locals incentives to encourage the protection – rather than the destruction – of the forest, all that could change, says Braga’s Secretary of Environment and Sustainable Development Virgilio Viana.
“The great challenge is to develop an economy based on the sustainable use of our ecosystems – the forests, rivers, lakes and streams of the Amazon,” he explains.
“We are now producing timber and non-timber forest products in an environmentally correct way and we also initiated the largest programme of lake management in the entire region.”
Subsidising local fishermen to not fish during certain months and encouraging the cultivation of Amazonian medicines and foods, “we are increasing the income of our traditional communities, keeping the agricultural population in the rural areas and contributing to conserve their rich culture and valuable ethno-ecological knowledge,” Viana explains.
Although 98% of Amazonas State’s rainforests remain intact (it’s other Brazilian states. like Para and Mato Grosso, that have seen far more deforestation), the State is controversially planning new hydroelectric dams on its rivers and building a new natural gas pipeline – all while encouraging the expansion of a highway that will cut the Amazon river basin in two.
“But we’re discussing how to protect the sides of that road by creating 8 million hectares of protected forest with the federal government,” explains Viana’s deputy, Nadia Ferreira, when asked how such a move could possibly be eco-friendly.
Amazonas State might have just instituted the nation’s first Climate Change Law and have Climate Change Police to help enforce it, but its paradoxical environmental policies still need some tweaking. If only the pink river dolphins could turn their therapeutic hand at politics.