Conservationists know him as Fernando Trujillo, but for the indigenous peoples of Colombia’s Amazon, he is “Omacha”: a dolphin who became man.

Certain Amazonian cultures believe that river dolphins are shape-shifters and capable of taking up the human form. Others believe that river dolphins were a people long time ago and that each water mammal has the potential to turn back into a person anytime. Correspondingly, many tribes nestled along this mighty river believe that the spirits of drowned people enter the bodies of river dolphins. Some even believe that a person responsible for killing a dolphin will never have success in hunting and will always be punished by higher spirits. Sadly these beliefs don’t protect river dolphins from settlers and commercial fishing operations.

As the founding partner of the Omacha Foundation, a Non-Governmental Organization dedicated to the study, conservation and protection of marine and terrain wildlife in Colombia, Trujillo graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Marine Biology from the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogotá. He holds a Masters in Environmental Sciences from the University of Greenwich in London and a PhD in Zoology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Amazon River Dolphin by Pearl Vas

Amazonian river dolphins are one of the biggest attractions in the region, drawing thousands of tourists each year.

He is the main researcher for projects carried out in the Orinoco and Amazon rivers and has extensive experience in research and conservation of endangered species, with an emphasis on aquatic mammals.

Ironically, when Trujillo finished his Masters degree and decided he wanted to work with dolphins, he still wasn’t aware that there were dolphins in Colombia. It wasn’t until his first visit with Jacques Cousteau that he was able to map out a mission for this life.

“There are river dolphins in Colombia and nobody is doing anything to protect them,” Jacques Cousteau told him once.

Trujillo took these comments from the world famous environmentalist to heart, but was really only familiar with the dolphins that inhabit oceans. He kept thinking: “Can there really be such a thing called river dolphins in Colombia?”

Shortly afterwards, he took his first trip to the Amazon. Fernando sat on a boat in the middle of the river at 5:00 a.m., surrounded by thick fog and stared calmly through his small window underneath the cloudbank. As he was staring at the horizon, something unexpected happened.

An encounter with destiny

A fleet of river dolphins shot to the surface and flew through the air. They then came back jumping between air and water. It was at this moment that Trujillo finally realized that Cousteau was right: there are river dolphins in Colombia, and due to overfishing and pollution, they needed to be defended.

The threat to these magnificent creatures in Colombia has changed over time. In the 1960s dolphins were being caught on a large scale by artisanal fishing nets. The rise in dolphin deaths came as electrical power was installed in thousands of small isolated communities in the Amazonian basin.

With the first refrigerators, fishermen could catch more fish than they could eat. Sadly, by freezing fish, they went for more, entangling more dolphins in wider nets. The population of river mammals began to sink.

As highly adaptable creatures, dolphins learned to jump the nets and would bite into the trapped catfish. They were considered a nuisance in the fight for food between man and animal, and during much of the 1990s, man was exterminating this spiritual guardian.

Man vs. animal

The fishermen of Puerto Nariño, Amazonas, were tired and frustrated by the dolphins eating away at their livelihoods, so they decided to hold a meeting as to how best to deal with the river “pest”.

Fernando Trujillo

Trujillo believes in leading true conservation efforts at the community level in order to change the behaviors of those who most frequently come into contact with river dolphins.

Trujillo turned up and remarked to the locals, “You are right, let’s go and kill all the dolphins!” This comment from a Bogotá-based environmentalist shocked the fisherman. They were caught so off guard they actually argued against him and in favor of their aquatic companions, admitting that they needed urgent problem solving.

Unfortunately, the peril to the dolphins didn’t stop at this Colombian river port.

Many river dolphins are still deliberately killed and used as bait for catching large river fish. The tragedy is a striking example of the many unsustainable fishing practices that threaten two of the largest river systems in the world: the Amazon and the Orinoco.

Luckily for those rivers and their aquatic inhabitants, Trujillo won the 2007 Whitley Gold Award, the Environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prize. This award led to valuable sponsorships from companies like Hewlett Packard. After winning the award, companies rallied to Trujillo’s projects.

In September 2007, Trujillo with help from the Faunagua Foundation and Omacha Foundation conducted South America’s first ever river dolphin census through the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers and their tributaries. During this census they counted 941 pink river dolphins on the 600 km stretch of the Itenez River in Bolivia.

Trujillo’s life in an Amazonian dugout isn’t padded by a red carpet. He has had to come into contact with many of the armed groups who operate in the remote corners of the country. In Puerto Carreño, Vichada, two guerillas approached him one day on a dock and asked him to follow them. They had some pressing questions.