Amazon River Dolphins - Colombia - Natütama Foundation

Natutama Children's ecology education group on a field trip, the Amazon
Natutama Children's ecology education group on a field trip, the Amazon
WDC is a founding supporter of the Natütama Foundation; a well-established and successful non-government organisation (NGO). Natutama is located in Puerto Nariño, a small town on the banks of the Amazon, Colombia. At the heart of Natutama is their fantastic education and interpretation centre built from scratch. The centre is open to the community and visitors alike and all conservation and education activities are coordinated here by Natutama workers.

Natütama means ‘Everything under the water’

Natütama is a successful project immersed in the Ticuna communities of the Colombian Amazon; working with and amongst local people to build a culture for conservation. The Natütama model offers a unique approach to wildlife protection – community participation and support is the key.

Arts and Crafts - an education activity at the Natutama Centre

Wildlife protection requires some restrictions on peoples’ activities and their use of natural resources. If protection is to work, people need to be able to make sense of the restrictions and how they will contribute to forging a cooperative culture for conservation.  The model requires a long term and year round commitment to living and working in the communities; it also needs a 2-way flow of information and cooperation between the communities and the project team. Some positive examples of good practice include: river dolphins released from nets if caught accidentally; Amazon river dolphins unharmed when perceived to be tampering with nets or competing for fish; no hunting of river dolphins or manatees; seasonal and other restrictions on fisheries; use of fishing nets and gear (spears etc) to limit waste and target fish type and protection of ceiba trees and birds’ nests.

Children cleaning rubbish from a stream, Colombian Amazon

WDC is a founding supporter of the Natütama Foundation, a non-government organisation (NGO) located in Puerto Nariño, which is a small Colombian town on the banks of the Amazon. The Amazon river passes through the southern tip of Colombia, where it borders both Peru and Brazil. There are no roads entering this frontier region where all three countries meet, and so it is only accessible from outside by boat along the Amazon, or by plane. This lack of roads into the region gives it a certain amount of protection from loggers, miners and settlers. It is an important area in the Amazon as it is relatively unspoilt by human activities and most people living here belong to the Ticuna Indian tribe (8000 people in Colombia).

The Natütama Foundation was set up to work with local communities to protect Amazon wildlife and habitats. The future of both people and wildlife is dependent on the ecosystem continuing to thrive and natural resources being carefully managed.

Natütama employs some 25 local people (mostly Ticuna Amazon Indians) all on a part time basis.


The remainder of the time these same individuals look after their families and engage in traditional activities such as fishing, maintaining their homes and growing food in jungle gardens. The Natütama model and methodology advocates full community participation in all conservation and education activities. Local peoples' knowledge about the habitats and wildlife is essential to the success of Natutama's work to protect wildlife. Local people's understanding and cooperation is also essential if the community is to support conservation action required to protect river dolphins, manatees, turtles, Piriracu fish and other endangered wildlife. Natutama is working in Colombia and also in nearby Peruvian and Brazilian communities.

Natutama education and outreach activities in a Peruvian community

One of the problems in Amazon communities, which are often remote and not in close touch with larger towns and cities, is the lack of enforcement of national laws and regulations to protect wildlife. It follows that if local people are not aware that there are laws or regulations in their country which ban the hunting of endangered species, or restrict people's activities in protected areas, they cannot be expected to abide by them. Essentially laws and regulations alone are useless for wildlife protection. The real need in Amazon communities is to find ways of letting people know about the laws and help them fully understand measures needed to protect endangered wildlife and habitats from further harm. In reality the fate of Amazon people and wildlife is so closely connected that, with long term educational outreach and support, communities are able to grasp the need for 'self-control' and become advocates for conservation and protection of wildlife and habitats. Above all, local people have knowledge of wildlife and processes which inform and contribute vital details to the protection process.

The Natütama Foundation has two teams. The first are the 'educators'; they plan and implement activities designed to educate and inform other local people about the endangered animals in the Amazon, and how they can protect them and their habitats from further harm.

The second team are the 'researchers' (mainly fishermen) whose principal role is to gather regular information about wildlife numbers, distribution, trends. They also look out for problems and threats to wildlife which can then be tackled.

Education and a constant community presence are cornerstones of the Natütama model. Most of the educators are young adults or school leavers, they reach some 800 children per month through regular lessons as part of the school curriculum in Colombia. They also run a series of voluntary children's groups outside school and organise events and get togethers for the whole community to come and take part and learn about wildlife and environmental processes

.outside street theater for school children

An outreach scheme of this scale requires a huge amount of planning and preparation and training of educators. The school children in and around Puerto Nariño have lessons and sometimes fieldtrips and other activities provided by Natütama. These are all designed to help them understand the Amazon ecosystem and creatures in it, how they and their families can reduce threats to wildlife and conserve the ecosystem for future generations of local people and wild animals alike.

Natütama also hosts regular community workshops and activities bringing together children and adults of all ages, to discuss issues that are important to them, and for them to learn about the conservation threats to wildlife and share their own knowledge. This provides opportunities to discuss issues related to threats to wildlife - including hunting, injuring wildlife and accidental killing - which need tackling within the community too.

The Natütama research team is made up mainly of fishermen from Puerto Nariño and nearby smaller communities. They are wildlife and Amazon experts in their own right as they have spent their entire lives in this environment trying to support themselves and their families. Much of the fishermens' time is spent in dug-out canoes, fishing in the rivers and lakes of the Amazon, as well as hunting and growing food in the forest. They can see things that are not distinguishable or noticeable to visitors or those who have not grown up in the Amazon environment. They intuitively find locations and hotspots of wildlife activity. They can see wild animals or traces of them, signs they have been at a location, or telltale signs at the surface that a river dolphin or manatee is nearby.

This expertise and inherent knowledge about the Amazon environment and creatures that live there is invaluable and makes it possible to closely monitor trends in numbers and distribution of dolphins, manatees, turtles, pirarucu, and the threats facing them in the area. This team offer essential advice and information needed to develop solutions to conservation problems and ways of tackling issues that will be accepted by community as a whole. They are also an action based team - using practical skills to build and maintain the Interpretation Centre, and maintain the support they achieved for the protection of ceiba trees important for heron nesting. These trees are amongst the tallest in the rainforest and are favourites for chopping down and mading into chipboard.

Natutama Ecology Group with Ceiba Tree

Members of the research and monitoring team have now become Wildlife Guardians. The river dolphin guardians carry out weekly surveys in the area and report any known deaths or problems. River dolphins are not deliberately hunted in the area (unlike elsewhere where they are routinely killed for bait). The manatee guardians used to hunt manatees but are now fully committed to the conservation programme and they talk to other fishermen, urging them not to hunt manatees. It is now several years since a manatee was killed in the Puerto Nariño area (sadly the same is not true elsewhere in the Amazon).

Natütama means everything under the water in the local Amazon Indian Ticuna language. At the heart of Natütama is their beautifully crafted Interpretation Centre. The buildings were constructed by fishermen from the research team using traditional building methods and materials.

Natutama interpretation centre

The exhibits were individually designed, carved and painted by craftspeople from Puerto Nariño and the educators. The two exhibitions each have a theme and stories associated with them which are told by the educators during guided tours. The first is a reconstruction of the flooded forest during high water; the second a river beach at night, exposed on the river bank during low water in the dry season. Both are designed to give visitors an insight into things they cannot see in the environment around them.

The exhibition has life-sized carvings of river dolphins, Amazon manatees, pirarucu (biggest freshwater fish), otters, turtles and numerous fish species; all swimming amongst flooded trees and roots of the rainforest during the high water season. The Amazon is full of sediment from the Andes and so appears opaque and tea-coloured, making it impossible to see the vast variety of animals and plants below the surface. So even the people living in Amazon communities do not ordinarily get the chance to see the wildlife they share their river homes with. This gives locals and visitors alike a glimpse into the underwater world of the Amazon and it is magical. Story telling is an integral part of the visit and is a way of keeping the Ticuna traditions alive. 

Children visiting the Natutama Interpretation Centre and the life-size boto carving

The second exhibition is in a large, high roofed building which is lined inside with hundreds of hand sewn dark blue squares of material mounted to create an inner dome with the night sky painted upon it. In the river there is a fisherman watching a river dolphin leap near his net. It is during the low water season and on the beach nearby there is a huge caiman. There are also turtle hatchlings scampering down to the safety of the river from their nest in the sand. Close by there is a capybara, a turtle and a heron in the bushes.

Each June, Natütama organises a week-long series of community activities using various ideas and opportunities to put conservation messages across to local people in entertaining ways. Street theatre productions acting out pro-conservation stories are always popular. Children love to see puppet shows and this is a great way to get messages across to people. The week traditionally ends with a huge parade that everyone is invited to take part in. It has become a carnival type affair with local people putting time and energy into creating costumes and entertainment.


The key to Natütama’s success is integrity and transparency of its leaders who live amongst the community and have a huge respect for local people and wildlife. They have an extraordinary capacity to involve and enthuse people about tackling some complicated conservation issues. This socialisation of ideas is very important to the success of the conservation programme.

 children visiting the Natutama Interpretation Centre

Natütama hosts over 5000 visitors to Centre on an annual basis. The majority of visitors are Colombian tourists and visiting school groups from Colombian cities, as well as visits from local community schools in Peru and Colombia.Peruvian children involved in artwork at Natutama centre in Colombia

News of the Centre and Natutama’s approach to tackling conservation issues with the full participation of the local community has spread. Other communities outside of Colombia have expressed an interest in initiating similar projects in their home countries. This is something WDC is very enthusiastic about and we are keen to support the dissemination of this model to other parts of the Amazon where threats to river dolphins and other wildlife are severe.

2015; It's Time to Celebrate Natutama's 10th Anniversary

Natutama Interpretation Centre Dance Educational Activity

Founded in 2005, makes 2015 a special year for Natutama; it marks their 10th Anniversary working together for wildlife and environmental protection in Puerto Narino, the Colombian Amazon. And there is so much to celebrate; some incredible achievements; not least all the river dolphins, manataees, giant Amazon fish, herons, turtles, sloths and ceiba trees saved!  The Natutama education and wildlife guardian programmes are covering more children and more ground than ever. This reflects the growing commitment of the indigenous educators and guides that make up this dedicated and committed team.

Natutama Educators in Action

The Natutama education programme now touches every single family in Puerto Narino and every age group (pre-school, primary and secondary), as well as people in more than 20 other communities including those in nearby Brazil and Peru.  Ticuna and Yagua elders from these Amazon Indian communities take part and share their knowledge with the Natutama educators and teach children indigenous songs, dances and stories; encouraging and motivating them to take care of wildlife and natural resources in their Amazon environment.

The successful Natutama 'Model' combines community education and wildlife monitoring and guardianship as a way of encouraging conservation; and this is now becoming well-established in conservation circles throughout Colombia.   

Natutama's Interpretation Centre has become a rallying point for tour operators who highlight an ethical approach to ecotourism. Guided tours and visits by tourists and local people offer opportunities to learn about the flooded forest, the underwater world and wildlife of the Amazon, and crucially, the importance of a hands-off approach to experiencing it, learning more about it and protecting it.

Natutama Interpretation Centre Entrance


Natutama can leave nobody in doubt that environmental education is a tool for transformation.

'Selvando', Natutama's education team regularly teaches primary and secondary school children about conservation values.  They are taught in exciting and dynamic ways including field trips to see river dolphins, manatee habitats, ceiba trees, litter clean-ups from the waterways and visits to the Interpretation Centre as well as classroom activities.

18 pre-school children groups and their teachers in Puerto Narino and neighbouring communities are another important focus for Natutama. Activities are designed to reinforce the bond between young children and their surroundings.

Natutama pre-school education

Natutama runs 6 junior ecology groups which meet in children's free time at the Interpretation Centre all year around.  Children learn to overcome fears related to the environment, to value trees and water that contiorbute to daily life and to improve behaviour and social relations amongst themselves and their elders.

Pre-school Natutama group

Community visits by Natutama's educators and wildlife monitors (mainly fishermen) remain popular. Activities are centred on endangered wildlife, particularly river dolphins, manatees and turtles.  Theatre, puppets, games, maps and artisitc work are used to explore local conservation problems and the use of local resources. In one Peruvian community the emphasis was on demonstrating the deprivation wild animals experience when held captive for tourist visits. The acitvities constrast the lives of wild animals with those in captivity.

Natutama Week

This annual event focused on local streams and waterways this time. All waterways were cleared in Puerto Narino during the week and the litter gathered together - giving an opportuntiy for everyone to reflect on what damage it is doing to their health, wildlife health and the environment. 

Natutama Waterway Clean up

Clean up

Conservation and Monitoring

The Natutama Model, combining community education and wildlife monitoring as a way of encouraging conservation aims to maximise local participation.

Ticuma fishermen carry out regular monitoring surveys for river dolphins and manatees, they also alert authorities about illegal use of fishing nets, and entanglements of dolphins or manatees.  They record all river dolphins sighted, their location, behaviour and any escalation in, or new threats seen. 

Natutama Wildlife monitoring

The FUTURE - Spreading the word and the Natütama Model

Natütama has already been instrumental in offering advice on the design and creation of an interpretation centre on the Napo River in Ecuador. Victor Uteras whom WDC has previously supported in river dolphin research efforts in Ecuador contacted Natütama and WDC about the possibility of having our help and support to set up a community interpretation centre. An exchange between local Indians from both sites followed. Those visiting Natütama in Colombia were enthusiastic about using the same model in Ecuador. Natütama representatives from the local community travelled to Ecuador to help and advise them with the new centre and associated activities.

In Peru, WDC and Natutama are working with a new river dolphin conservation organisation called 'Solinia' founded by its Director, Cedric Gillemen.

Solinia team

During 2015 WDC, Natutama and Solinia will be working together on an exchange programme designed to help share our experiences over the last 10 years working in Puerto Narino, Colombia.  Solinia will benefit from the enormous amount of experience and expertise the Natutama team has built up.  Individuals from Natutama will visit Iquitos and work with Solinia; they will advise them on how to build on their education and outreach programme and how to engage further with local communities.  Natutama educators will experience working in a huge Amazon city and how that differs from their base in Puerto Narino, a Colombian Amazon town.  We think that the exchange will benefit and add to the experiences of both teams and ultimately help both in their efforts to work with communities to conserve river dolphins and their environments.

 Natutama education activities with Brazilian children