Dolphins: Nature’s Playful Healers

When Diego Cifuentes, co-founder of Villa Lilia Agroecoturistico, talks about dolphins, his eyes light up. “The dolphins are more playful than us,” he says. “If you give off good energy, they may even touch you.”

This is just what you can experience if you take a two-hour boat ride from San José del Guaviare to Colombia’s Lake Nare. Here, you can get up close to the boto, the local name for the pink Amazon River dolphin. It’s an encounter that is sure to leave you giddy with excitement, and it’s one that is helping to bring reconciliation and create jobs in this near-forgotten corner of Colombia’s Amazon basin.

Guerrillas, Fishers, and Dolphins: An Unlikely Alliance

When Cifuentes and his brother first moved to the lake, they had to ask permission from the Farc guerrillas to do so. The local fishers were angry with the dolphins because they ate their catches, and the guerrillas would step in if a fisherman killed one of the botos.

But now, the dolphins are increasingly seen as being worth more alive than dead. The Omacha Foundation calculated that each dolphin could bring in US$20,000 (£16,200) a year for the local economy through tourism, compared with $25 that a fisher could get for a dead dolphin.

The potential of ecotourism is clear, but it must be managed sustainably. Fernando Trujillo, scientific director of the Omacha Foundation, warns that if the dolphins are disturbed too much, they could leave the area. He says it is important to generate sustainable processes in the territories, as neither dolphins, nor jaguars, nor turtles are going to exist in degraded, polluted ecosystems.

A Place of Reconciliation and Rich Biodiversity

As part of its repositioning from a no-go conflict zone to a thriving ecotourism hub, Guaviare also offers visitors the chance to see rivers of pink algae and rock paintings more than 10,000 years old, as well as birdwatching in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

Tourism is providing opportunities for reconciliation, as well as creating jobs and promoting conservation. It also allows people to really understand what they have to take care of. Julian Eduardo Niño, founder of Geotours del Guaviare, says it is part of a wider trend in Latin America of tourists flocking to see whales and dolphins.

Ricardo Semillas, a former Farc commander who now works to reintegrate former guerrillas into civilian life, says after laying down their arms, the former rebels looked at different options to earn an income and naturally gravitated to ecotourism. He says the peace process has had a positive economic impact on all those involved in today’s tourist industry, from tour companies and Indigenous communities to farmers selling sancocho stew.

The dolphins of Lake Nare are nature’s playful healers, providing a unique opportunity for visitors to connect with nature, and for former combatants to find a place of reconciliation. With the right management, this ecotourism industry can help to protect the dolphins, as well as create jobs and promote conservation in the Amazon basin.