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Bufeo: Close encounters with the Pink River Dolphin of the Amazon

Updated on May 24, 2011
The pink river dolphin of Bolivia has been designated a separate species.
The pink river dolphin of Bolivia has been designated a separate species.

First encounters with pink river dolphins

Pink river dolphins? I first discovered the existence of the bufeo during a trip along the River Mamore in Bolivia's Amazon basin. I had never heard of river dolphins before - so it was quite a surprise when a pink-grey dolphin head surfaced just a few feet from our boat!

Bufeos , as they are known to locals in Bolivia, are the subject of many legends and are regarded as magical creatures. They are friendly and curious creatures, not afraid of humans, yet much about their behaviour - not to mention their amazing pink colour - remains a mystery.

Read on to find out more about:

  • Pink River Dolphin facts
  • Legends of the Bufeo
  • Conservation Efforts for river dolphins in the Amazon

River Dolphin, Bolivia. All rights reserved.
River Dolphin, Bolivia. All rights reserved.

Encounters with the pink river dolphin of Bolivia

Time moves differently in Bolivia. Having signed up as passengers on a river cargo boat for a 'five or six' day journey, my friend and I found ourselves trapped on a slow-moving boat for twelve days!

One advantage to the enforced length of our soujourn on the River Mamoré was that we had many encounters with the wonderful pink river dolphins. They would appear suddenly alongside our boat as we pulled in once again, spouting water from their blow-holes before disappearing back into the murky brown waters.

Although they weren't afraid of us, they eluded our best attempts to get close-up photographs. As soon as they appeared, they were gone again - and you never knew where exactly they would surface again to breathe before disappearing once more. The photo on the right here is the best we were able to get, though we saw them many times.

The appearance of the dolpins was a welcome event. Apart from breaking the boredom of what came to seem like an endless river journey, there was something magical about these creatures. It felt like their appearance alongside us each evening was the return of well-known friends.

Sunset in the Amazon River Basin, Bolivia. All rights reserved.
Sunset in the Amazon River Basin, Bolivia. All rights reserved.

Interesting facts about the Pink River Dolphin

Bufeos, or pink river dolphins, live in the freshwater rivers of the Amazon basin in South America - in Bolivia, Peru and Brazil.

Their unusal pink colour is believed to result from translucent skin which allows more blood to show than with other dolphin species. Thus, as they get older they become less grey and more ink in appearance because their skin becomes more see-through with age.

The dolphins can actually change from grey to pink according to their mood. If they are excited they will become pinker, for example, or when they are mating.

Amazon river dolphins were classified as ' vulnerable' by the 2000 IUCN Red List, and have since been reclassified as endangered due to threats from pollution and over-fishing.

The brains of pink river dolphins are 40% bigger than the human brain.

Although almost blind, river dolphins hunt for fish and crustaceans in the muddy river waters using echolocation - a kind of sonar - much the same as their cousins the dolphins of the seas.

Unlike sea dolphins the amazonian river dolphins have a hump instead of a dorsal fin, and river dolphins have a flexible neck which allows them to scan their location.

They grow around two to three metres long and can live for up to 30 years.

No one really knows how they came to live in the Amazon river system - did they migrate at one point in the distant past from the sea? Or are they a remnant of an even earlier time when sea covered that part of the land?

Legends of the Bufeo: a magical creature

One of the many passengers who joined us a one point on our river journey, was a dark-skinned Brazilian man called Jose. He told us the local legends of the bufeos, in between bemoaning the problem of black magic in his home village - so you can make of his account what you will! But I do think Jose's stories showed that the Amazon is a magical place, and the people who live there understand their world in a way that Westerners can only wonder at.

Jose told us about the many drowning people who had been rescued by river dolphins guiding them to the riverbanks. The bufeos are seen as lucky, he told us, a friend to humans. And they have souls of their own - so should never be killed.

In fact, he went on to say, this is because they are shapefhifters who can move in the world in dolphin or human form. They are said to emerge from the rivers at night and walk through the forest at night as a human man dressed in a white suit. They are potently fertile and can get a girl pregnant just by walking past her house as she sleeps at night.

Conservation of the Pink River Dolphin


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