Workers at a zoo in Venezuela are managing to keep their manatees fed — in a country where many people are going without food. CGTN’s Juan Carlos Lamas has details.
Best known as Chicho and Fernanda, these were the first West Indian manatees, or sea cows, to arrive at the Bararida Zoo. The West Indian manatee is the largest surviving member of the aquatic mammal order Serenia. The two were rescued by zoo workers from fishermen more than 20 years ago.
“It’s an endangered species, protected by Venezuelan law since the 1970s,” said Carlos Silva, the zoo’s medical director. “Their habitats and population have been reduced dramatically.”
Poaching and destruction of habitat meant only a few hundred manatees were left by the late 1970s. The staff at Bararida Zoo developed a reproduction program that’s helped Chicho and Fernanda produce offspring. Since 1992, workers here at Bararida Zoo have successfully managed to breed four manatees in captivity, making this a leading zoo in South America for manatee reproduction.
In their natural habitat, manatees eat up to 20 percent of their weight each day, grazing in beds of seagrass. These manatees at the Baraida Zoo eat food provided by the local government — 150 kilos of lettuce and 12 kilos of carrots each day, plus bananas and broccoli. In a country where hyperinflation is expected to reach 10 million percent this year, that’s not easy.
“I’m doing this because I love animals, and as an environmentalist, it’s rewarding to see how animals somehow thank you for being here and helping them,” said zookeeper Raquel Vallarelli. “That’s what’s kept me here, because our salaries are truly worthless.”
Visitors appreciate the efforts to keep the manatees alive.
“It’s an interesting and mystical animal,” said visitor Leomer Miranda. “I like the way it swims. It caught my attention immediately.”
The manatees are now living in an aquarium that’s just 60 centimeters deep because the zoo says it doesn’t have the funds to repair the glass in a deeper aquarium. Workers hope someday they’ll be able to release the manatees to swim freely in their natural habitat: Venezuela’s freshwater rivers and estuaries, and in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
Keeping manatees alive
It was more than 20 years ago when workers at the Botanical Zoo Bararida learned local fishermen had captured two West Indian manatees, the largest surviving member of the aquatic mammal order Serenia. Workers made arrangements to bring the manatees to the zoo in the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, and named them Chicho and Fernanda. The zoo has been their home ever since.
Chicho was just a few months old. He was raised by zoo workers who fed him for three years on a diet of goat milk. Fernanda was already six years old, and refused to eat anything the workers offered her. They knew manatees would have grown up grazing on sea grass beds, and they experimented with various kinds of food to feed her in captivity until they discovered she loved lettuce. In their natural habitat, West Indian manatees can eat up to 20 percent of their weight each day. The local government provides 150 kilos of lettuce and 12 kilos of carrots, plus bananas and broccoli for the manatees each day.
The West Indian manatee is considered an endangered species in Venezuela, where its numbers have dropped dramatically due to poaching and destruction of habitat. The staff at Bararida Zoo has developed a reproduction program that’s helped Chicho and Fernanda produce offspring. They have successfully managed to breed four manatees in captivity.
Now a family of six, Chicho and Fernanda and their offspring swim in an aquarium just 60 centimeters deep. Venezuela is in the midst of an economic crisis, and the zoo says it does not have the funds to repair broken glass in a deeper aquarium that workers say would make a better temporary home for them. Workers say even better than fixing the glass in the broken aquarium, would be an opportunity to release these manatees to swim in their natural habitat, in Venezuela’s freshwater rivers and estuaries, and in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.