SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center has become a model facility in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America for the recovery of those marine mammals, and the rehabilitation work conducted there has recently been extended to turtles and sea birds.
The center’s director, Antonio Mignucci, told EFE on Friday that since its founding in 2009 it has both assisted with the recovery of individual manatees and advised Caribbean and Latin American countries on the conservation of this species, whose numbers have fallen to between 500 and 700 in Puerto Rico due to the constant threat posed by human beings.
“We’re the only center in the entire Caribbean region that has a marine veterinary clinic,” Mignucci, a marine science professor at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, said at that institution’s campus in Bayamon (near San Juan), where the manatee rehab facility is located.
The work carried out by the center, which is managed and funded by the Caribbean Stranding Network and the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, includes rescue and response programs for stranded animals, rehabilitation and veterinary care and population research.
“The manatee is in danger in Puerto Rico, where there are now between 500 and 700 individuals,” Mignucci said, adding that 3,000 are needed before the species can escape the danger of extinction.
Sponsors are needed to support the mission of the center, which has a staff of four veterinarians, 10 technicians and nearly 60 volunteers and has annual expenses totaling roughly $500,000.
One of its biggest costs is food for its resident manatees: three calves and one adult.
In the case of the calves, they are dependent on their mothers during their first three years of life and cannot survive without that parental care or, alternatively, the assistance of the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center’s professional staff.
Between one and three manatees are rescued annually, according to Mignucci, who said it would be practically impossible to care for more of these marine mammals given the center’s annual budget per individual of $100,000.
Most of the manatees that arrive at the center are animals suffering from physical problems stemming from their interactions with human beings, the professor said.
Unlike in other Latin American countries where manatees are still hunted for their meat, injuries to this aquatic animal in Puerto Rico most often are the result of watercraft accidents, Mignucci said.
The head of the center’s marine clinic is Colombian veterinarian Lesly Cabrias, who cares for manatees in Puerto Rico and also serves as an adviser in cases where these animals are suffering physical problems elsewhere in the region, including her homeland.
“We’re a bridge for Latin America,” Mignucci said, noting that the center also operates an intensive care unit for these animals.
The manatee calves currently living at the center are called Loiza, Bajari and Taicaraya, while the adult, Guacara, has been there since 2010.
Manatees, which breathe air at the surface every few minutes and typically do not stray more than five kilometers (three miles) from the coast, are returned to the ocean following rehabilitation and fitted with satellite tracking devices that indicate their precise geographical location.
Around two years ago, the center launched a similar rescue and rehabilitation program for turtles and sea birds.
Three turtles currently live at the center, including a loggerhead sea turtle named Anky whose shell was injured by a boat, and a blind hawksbill sea turtle.
The facility also is home to two pelicans – one with arthritis in a foot and another with a dislocated wing – and one other sea bird.
Now regarded as a model facility in the Caribbean region, the genesis of the project dates back to 1991 when Mignucci was completing an internship in La Parguera, a bioluminescent bay found in the southern town of Lajas.
An injured manatee named Moises was received there and rehabilitated, and then efforts to protect these endangered marine mammals were given a big lift when an Italian-born singer living in Puerto Rico, Tony Croatto, dedicated a song to Moises and raised public awareness about the plight of these animals.
After years of work, Mignucci in 2009 launched the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center and set in motion a process that led to the facility’s eventually earning international recognition.
The manatee is a marine mammal that inhabits coastal areas and the mouths of rivers. An adult can grow to just over three meters (9.8 feet) and weigh nearly 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds).