The Guiana dolphin, an iconic species depicted on the city of Rio de Janeiro's flag, is facing extinction. But a group of marine biologists are on a mission to save it.
In 2009 Dr. Leonardo Flach, a local marine biologist better known as Leo, founded Instituto Boto Cinza — an organization dedicated to protecting 150 Guiana dolphins. Native to the waters of South America — stretching from Honduras to the South Atlantic ocean — it is often hard to see them in large pods, except near Brazil's Cunhembebe State Park, where Dr. Flach works.
Learning about the Guiana dolphin is a big part of Leo's life work. He says in the early days, it was very difficult to monitor or track the animals who live in large and often polluted parts of the sea.
“Fishermen would talk to me about sick animals or report dead bodies, including ones caught in their fishing nets,” says Leo, adding that some informants delivered news in person too late and others could not afford to contact his organization by phone. Timely receipt of this information, explains Leo, means he can examine the bodies and potentially learn more about what is harming the dolphins and how to protect them.
But in 2016 things changed dramatically when Instituto started using WhatsApp.
Not only did Leo begin receiving information from a network of fishermen, sailors and other experts much faster, but also photos and videos — vital evidence which helps guide often time-sensitive missions.
Thais Marinho, an Instituto biologist, says setting up this WhatsApp network was not easy; she walked the streets of coastal towns talking to — and convincing — fishermen to participate and putting up signs of the organization's WhatsApp number.
Today nearly 100 people share information about the dolphins with Instituto via WhatsApp.
Leo says because of the app's ease and simplicity his organization is covering a much larger area than ever before and thanks to more timely insights from the field, leading breakthroughs in research about the species, its habits and importantly, how the environment affects its health.
Instituto's scale and impact were highlighted in 2018 when dozens of dead dolphins washed up along the coast. Leo's team was able to study this disease outbreak more closely and effectively because almost every fisherman and sailor they knew tracked both sick and healthy dolphins and shared this information with them via WhatsApp.
For more than a century the Guiana dolphin has been a recognizable symbol of Brazil's most famous city. Today, with the help of WhatsApp, its presence in the waters it represents is better assured and the community trying to protect it, better connected.