In a major triumph for freshwater conservation, Colombia’s Bita River basin was recently announced by President Juan Manuel Santos as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention—an intergovernmental treaty that that provides the framework for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. This decree spans 824,500 hectares, establishing the river basin as the largest of the country’s 11 Ramsar sites and one of very few protected sites in the world to encompass an entire free-flowing river watershed.
Running unimpeded for more than 372 miles before flowing into the Orinoco River, the Bita River is a treasure trove of biodiversity. It harbors at least 1,474 species of plants, 254 fish species, 201 bird species, and 63 species of mammals—from tapirs to deer and jaguars—and its extensive freshwater habitats and gallery forest ecosystems are home to iconic species such as river dolphins, the blue arowana, and the charapa turtle.
It also supports local communities who rely on the river for everything from fishing to tourism to survive.
The historic protection of the river is the result of joint efforts by WWF-Colombia and the Alliance for the Bita, comprised of the Omacha Foundation, the von Humboldt Institute, Vichada Provincial Government, the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and other partners. The Alliance has been working with citizens and the government in recent years to define a sustainable future for the Bita River. After years of studies and consultations, stakeholders agreed to give the river a protected status that would allow for sustainable use, ensuring that the river’s incredible biodiversity—and the important ecological processes on which its survival hinges—are safeguarded in the long term.
“The designation means that a vast wealth of species along the Bita River will be protected with support from local inhabitants and institutions,” said WWF-Colombia freshwater specialist Saulo Usma. “Critical wetland complexes, such as floodable savannah, drainage channels, and miriti palm ecosystems—which are home to a wide variety of fish—will be conserved. These are a vital source of income for local inhabitants.”