Since pre-colonial times the Amazonian manatee has been the most hunted aquatic mammal in Brazil, yet its ecology has been little studied. To improve our knowledge of the feeding habits of this Vulnerable species we worked with Ribeirinhos (Riverine People) to study the diet of the manatee in the vicinity of Anavilhanas National Park, Tapajós–Arapiuns Extractive Reserve and Tapajós National Forest in the Brazilian Amazon. Aided by the traditional knowledge of the Ribeirinhos we identified 31 plant species, predominantly vines, consumed by the manatee in Anavilhanas, and 37 food plants, primarily submerged species with floating leaves, in the Tapajós region.

One of the studied lakes with submerged plants with floating leaves, located in the Tapajós National Forest. Credit: Luciana Crema.

Using the traditional knowledge of the Ribeirinhos we found that the diet of the manatee differs between different water types. The local communities who live in these areas have in-depth knowledge of manatee biology and the plant species it consumes. Two-thirds of the plant species we identified with the help of the Ribeirinhos had not previously been reported as components of the manatee’s diet.

Black-water lake in Anavilhanas National Park, where the plant species consumed by the manatee are available only during times of high water. Photo: Luciana Crema.

Although pressure on the Amazonian manatee has declined, hunting still occurs in Anavilhanas, probably because of its proximity to the city of Manaus in Amazonas State. In the Tapajós region, however, manatee hunting appears to be infrequent and has little impact on the species. Because of their knowledge and their historical interaction with the species, the involvement of Ribeirinhos in manatee conservation is the key to reducing threats to the species and increasing the effectiveness of biodiversity management in these wetlands.

Meeting with riverine residents of Tapajos-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve. Photo: Sara Leitão.

The importance of our study went beyond the novelty of our findings: we were empowered by the connection and motivation that we felt in working closely with these communities. We held several initial meetings with the relevant community leaders, to discuss the relevance of our work, and as a result the Ribeirinhos trusted the team and collaborated with us.

Luciana Crema with members of a riverine community from the vicinity of Anavilhanas National Park. Photo: Valdecir do Nascimento.

We observed the significant level of involvement that these riverine communities have with their environment, and the depth of their knowledge of ecosystem functions and the relationship between biotic and abiotic factors. Such relevant knowledge is often ignored by researchers.

Children during leisure and learning activities on threatened species of mammals, at a school located in the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve. Credit: Sara Leitão.

We were able to bond and share personal stories with the Ribeirinhos, and we also carried out environmental education campaigns during our time with them. We held film sessions—with popcorn and juice—and distributed books and threatened species activity notebooks to children, and held discussions about the importance of conservation and the sustainable use of environmental resources. There was extensive interest in these activities.


Children at a school in the Tapajós National Forest. Photo: Sara Leitão.

Our findings have been presented to the managers and advisory council of the protected areas, and we are hopeful that the information will inform decision making to improve the management and conservation of the fauna and flora—and especially of the manatee– of these Amazonian protected areas.

Schoolchildren and their paintings of the Amazonian manatee (peixe-boi in Portuguese). Photo: Luciana Crema.

The articleRiverine people’s knowledge of the Vulnerable Amazonian manatee Trichechus inunguis in contrasting protected areas’ is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Luciana Crema is an environmental analyst. Her expertise in ecology includes working on wetlands, aquatic macrophytes, aquatic mammals and ethnobiology. She is also a member of the National Centre for Research and Conservation of Continental Aquatic Biodiversity, of the Ecology, Monitoring and Sustainable Use of Wetlands group of the National Institute of Amazonian Research, and a member of the National Council of Experimentation Control.