Santa Marta, Colombia.- At nine months he is already one and a half meters tall but he cannot live without his bottle: Tasajerito is a baby manatee, one of the largest aquatic mammals in the world, which grows in captivity in the Colombian Caribbean before to be released, possibly in two years.
He was adrift when fishermen found him in a swamp in the region when he was three days old. Since then, specialists from the Marine Fauna Care, Assessment and Rehabilitation Center of the local environmental authority have taken care of it 24 hours a day. They named it after the town of Tasajera, a thin line of land that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta.
“A search was made for the mother, but she could not be found, so she was declared an orphan,” veterinarian Ángela Dávila, who participates in the rehabilitation of the manatee (Trichechus manatus) at the Rodadero Aquarium in Santa Marta (north), explains to AFP. ).
Visitors peer into the pool where he spends his days drinking from a baby bottle. The mixture contains powdered milk for aquatic mammals, vitamins and excrement from other manatees. With this formula, it develops the intestinal flora to digest the food, experts explain.
In the last nine months, Dávila has taught him “how to float, how to sink, how to swim (…) the functions that a calf normally has with its mother.” The forecasts were not favorable and currently his condition remains “clinically critical”.
The caregivers will continue to act as surrogate mothers for at least two more years. By then, Tasajerito should be between three and four meters long and weigh about 600 kilos. At that time they will decide if he is fit to be released or should remain in captivity.
“Determining whether it is an animal suitable for inhabiting the waters of the swamp depends on its state of health,” says marine biologist Julieth Prieto, who highlights its “irreplaceable ecological functions.”
These giants can devour up to 50 kilos of aquatic vegetation daily, thus controlling the sedimentation that affects several Colombian rivers. Due to its size, its migrations help to keep the channels that connect freshwater bodies with the sea clear.
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“If this species were to become extinct, we would have to carry out many actions with dredgers to recover water flows between rivers, swamps and the sea,” warns Prieto.
There are three species of manatee: African, Amazonian and Caribbean, to which Tasajerito belongs. The latter ranges from the coasts of the southeastern United States to those of the Atlantic in Brazil.
With a population estimated at 11,000 individuals, the Caribbean manatee is considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In Colombia, hunting is its main threat. “These species cannot be eaten. They are very reduced, it is better to preserve the few individuals that we have alive”, emphasizes the biologist.
The noble giant faces an unexpected competitor in Colombian territory: the hippos brought by drug trafficker Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. This species of mammals has reproduced without control and today they are a herd of more than 100 individuals in the process of extinction. reproduction.
Considered invaders by environmental authorities, hippos could compete for food with manatees and even change the composition of the water due to the volume of their droppings, according to ecology doctor Nataly Castelblanco.
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