Updated at 12:12 p.m. ET on November 13, 2020
I’m on a speedboat on the Rio Madeira, which translates to “wood river,” near the Brazilian city of Porto Velho in the upper Amazon River basin. Along with Miriam Pereira Mateus and Ileziane da Silva Pinto, two women in their 30s, I’m peering at the water, which is as opaque as milky coffee. Every once in a while, something pierces the surface—a large splash or a bright flash of color—and we point excitedly, hoping to confirm a sighting of a pink river dolphin, also called a boto. But each time, we’re disappointed. Our boat driver tells us that the dolphins are probably all around us; he sees them frequently. He points to the right, convinced he sees two huddled together, and steers us toward the spot. We see nothing.
Botos can grow to about nine feet long, with humps on their backs in place of dorsal fins. Their characteristic Millennial-pink hue, found mostly in males, is thought to be caused by the injuries and scarring they sustain in fights with each other. The rosier their skin, the more likely they are to sire calves, perhaps because potential mates are attracted to this evidence of aggression.
Scientists didn’t begin to systematically study the behavior or population dynamics of botos outside captivity until the early 1990s. But the ribeirinhos, the people who live on the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries, have had a long and complicated relationship with the species. While the botos have a reputation for leading fishers to areas rich with fish, they are also known for luring them to dangerous areas and deliberately confusing navigators and sinking their boats. According to one myth, the botos transform into handsome men by night, and come ashore dressed in white suits and white hats. It is said that the botos are so seductive that women wind up pregnant with their babies.
In the Brazilian Amazon and its surrounding communities, stories about animals are a major part of cultural life, and are often used to make sense of what happens in the river’s murky depths. In Porto Velho, images of cute, smiling botos are ubiquitous on murals and in graffiti. But the fanciful tales about shape-shifting botos are also used to obscure the realities of life along the river: If a woman becomes pregnant because she was forced into prostitution, or assaulted by a community member, a boto can be conjured up to explain the situation. Mateus and Pinto are members of a group called Filhas do Boto Nunca Mais—Daughters of the Dolphin, Never Again—which combats sexual violence in Porto Velho and nearby river communities. Their mission is to reveal the chronic abuse that the boto has long been used to hide.
“I don’t think most people know the true reason for the boto story,” Mateus tells me through a translator. “We’re trying to show the dark side behind it. It’s about the things we don’t talk about.”
While the boto legend lingers, the actual animals are dying out. Twenty years ago, the boto was a data-deficient species that scientists thought was relatively stable, but in 2018 it was classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. During our short tour of the Rio Madeira, we see small settlements built by gold miners. We pass a tanker carrying beef destined for China, and approach a hydroelectric dam that sends power to São Paulo. But we never do see a pink dolphin, and we head back to the Porto Velho docks.
Myths have long surrounded the boto, and many of those stories are playful. In some, the boto is a magical being, responsible for mysterious events; in others, it is a symbol of grace, sensitivity, and fluid sensuality. But over time, the tales have acquired a darker side.
When Europeans arrived in South America in the 1500s, Portuguese, French, Spanish, Dutch, and English colonists violently subjugated the region’s people, killing and traumatizing millions. Indigenous women were frequently raped, and perpetrators and survivors alike sometimes claimed that the resulting children had been fathered by mythical boto-men. (The white suits and hats worn by botos in many stories are thought to suggest this historical association between botos and white men.)
Over the centuries that followed, ribeirinho communities rode the boom-and-bust cycles of the mining, timber, livestock, and hydropower industries. As jobs came and went, many women had to rely on men with precarious livelihoods or living situations. Sexual violence and prostitution became endemic. The boto myths were used to justify restrictions on women’s movements and behavior; sometimes, women themselves used the stories as a shield.
“When a woman can’t accept a painful reality or wants to avoid being shamed by her community, she unconsciously distorts the facts,” says Gilzete Passos Magalhães, a psychology professor at the Salesian Catholic University in the city of Macaé. “She projects onto this figure, which is thought to be divine.”
The myths continue to serve as an alibi for perpetrators. The epidemic of sexual violence and the tradition of silence around women’s suffering remain firmly entrenched in the Amazon and beyond. Brazil is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a woman: According to a 2020 study by the nongovernmental organization Brazilian Forum on Public Security, police receive a report of violence against a woman every two minutes. A rape occurs every eight minutes, and 57.9 percent of the victims are under 14 years old—the age of consent in Brazil. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, evidence from Brazil and elsewhere suggests that rates of violence against women have increased worldwide.
The landmark Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence, passed in 2006, established a special court system to handle these cases, mandated new women’s shelters, and created a mechanism for judges to preventively detain an aggressor at any point of a police investigation. It also sparked a national conversation about sexual violence, which challenged common societal assumptions about women’s responsibility for their own abuse. But those assumptions continue, and they may be especially persistent in river communities, where people have limited interaction with the outside world. Even though Bolsa Família, a government welfare program enacted in 2003, requires that children go to school, schools are rarely in session in many river communities, and most adults leave only once a month—often to go to a city to pick up a welfare check and rice and other food staples. What happens near the river tends to remain hidden.
Magalhães researched the psychological origins of the boto myth in the states of Pará and Amapá in northern Brazil, far from Porto Velho but with a similarly rich tradition of Amazon folklore.* Pará’s economy revolves around mining and agricultural resources such as acai and Brazil nuts, and large tracts of rain forest have been razed for cattle ranching and soy farming. The state also has some of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the country, according to a 2010 government investigation, and to aid survivors the government has opened centers that house police stations, medical clinics, social workers, and counselors.
Pablo Cardoso Maia, a psychologist at one such center in Pará, says the boto myth and this societal epidemic go hand in hand: “Just as we chase cases of violence against women, we’re always tracking the myth.”
Maia introduces me to Maria Rosa Borges, 62, who grew up in a river community but now lives in a simple wood house with her daughter and granddaughters in the port city of Breves. In her hometown, she says, she knew someone who got pregnant and whose husband insisted the child was not his. The couple claimed that she had been impregnated by a boto, which made them revile the creature. Another neighbor maintained that she was tricked into consorting with a boto because it was dressed up as her husband, and she hadn’t thought to check if it had a blowhole under its hat. Later, this neighbor had a child and claimed that when he turned six, he turned into a boto and disappeared into the water for good.
“I’m afraid of even thinking about the things that happened on the riverside,” Borges says.
Today, as the Internet reaches more and more isolated river communities and the culture becomes more sexually permissive, only the most traditional—or most innocent—continue to believe that botos literally metamorphose into seductive men. But many maintain that there is something malignant about the species. When asked whether her mother’s stories are exaggerated, Borges’s daughter, Marlina Borges Pinheiro, 33, shakes her head forcefully.
“There are cases where people will blame things on the boto. Someone gets pregnant and they claim it was the boto, but that doesn’t mean that things with the boto don’t happen,” she says. “Botos do bad things to people.”
Juracilda Carvalho Santos, 39, who also grew up on the riverside but now lives in Breves, found out about the psychological origins of the boto legend when she went to college, and the revelation made her question many of the beliefs she grew up with. Santos, who had to escape an abusive husband in order to attend school, recognizes that the myth is only one of the forces keeping girls in dangerous situations, but it’s one she is trying to reverse. She is careful not to tell her young daughters stories about the boto; she wants to encourage them to tell their own stories. Still, she says, the myth is difficult to dislodge, even from her own mind.
“Even though I know it’s a lie, I’m still scared of the boto,” she says. “It’s a very internal issue—something you have to unwind slowly.”
In the past, the boto’s mythic powers protected it. Few people would deliberately catch or kill one, because most were scared that its spirit would retaliate. While those fears are fading, the species is still widely resented. Just as the boto myth has been a double-edged sword for women—allowing their communities to ignore their abuse but also allowing them to avoid the shame that too often accompanies it—the stories that once protected these animals have turned them into targets.
The leading direct cause of boto deaths is entrapment by fishing nets, both accidental and deliberate. And more fish are being caught in the Amazon basin than ever before. Local demand for food is increasing due to an influx of migrants and a continued high fertility rate—while the overall fertility rate in Brazil is declining, it’s not unusual for women in river communities to have 10 or more children. And as the region’s access to markets expands, international demand for the Amazon’s fish is growing.
The rivers are filled with monofilament gill nets, which are much more efficient than traditional homemade nets because they aren’t visible to prey and can entangle fish so they can’t escape. But they also capture dolphins, especially calves that aren’t strong enough to wriggle out of them. While fishers could set them free—as they do with the gray dolphins they consider the “good guys”—the negative associations they have with botos allows them to justify using the pink dolphins’ smelly carcasses to catch fish. A fish species called piracatinga enjoys the dolphin’s pungent blubber. Though unpopular in Brazil because it’s a scavenger that feeds on rotting flesh, in Colombia it has been marketed as a related species called capaz, which is considered a delicacy and is critically endangered. (Botos captured in nets are also occasionally butchered for their genitals; because of the species’ rumored knack for seduction, oils made from boto genitals are sold as aphrodisiacs and perfumes.)
“In the time I’ve been going to the Amazon, the role of the mythology has diminished enormously,” Tony Martin, a leader of the research group Projeto Boto, says. “Because botos have long been considered to be a sort of mythical beast that could do weird things, [people] just prefer not to risk negative consequences of catching them … But when you’ve got so many gill nets and there were some dolphins that were learning how to take fish from the nets, which of course pissed off the fishermen, then over a space of five or 10 or 15 years, this kind of protection brought about by the mythology—I think it almost evaporated.”
Martin started studying pink dolphins in 1993. At that point, they were still plentiful throughout their range, so he thought they were secure compared to their counterparts around the world. Freshwater dolphins, of which there are generally considered to be five species, are one of the world’s most endangered groups of mammals, threatened by water pollution, hydropower development, and unsustainable fishing practices. The Yangtze River dolphin has been extinct for at least 10 years, and the vaquita, of which there are only about 30 left in the Gulf of California, is likely to disappear within the decade.
Around the turn of the millennium, Martin and his collaborators noticed that the boto population was shrinking rapidly. In the Mamirauá Reserve in northern Brazil, where Projeto Boto counts the boto population each year, numbers appeared to be dropping by half about every decade. It’s almost impossible to estimate the total living boto population, but Martin suspects it is about 25 percent of what it was when he started. The actual decline may be even steeper, since dolphin killings are less likely near the protected waters of the reserve than in other parts of the Amazon, and more dolphins might be attracted to its comparatively peaceful waters.
Miriam Marmontel, senior researcher of the Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá, a sustainable-development group that works in the same reserve, agrees that fishing nets are the single biggest problem for botos. But she argues that it’s unfair to blame fishers, who are incentivized by desperation and an economic system that rewards them for destroying the ecosystem they depend on. The Mamirauá Institute has successfully promoted management strategies to ensure the long-term use of fisheries and timber, but such sustainable-harvest models aren’t possible for aquatic mammals such as the boto, which breed so infrequently that the killing of a single calf can have a significant effect on the population. It’s hard to make the case for total protection without an economic upside.
“[The ribeirinhos] all have TVs. They see the benefit of an urban situation, and people are eager for all of that,” Marmontel says.
Following a national television report on a bloody dolphin hunt—what Marmontel says was a staged and highly sensationalized version of how ribeirinhos typically collect dolphin meat—the government initiated a moratorium in 2015 on the fishing and marketing of piracatinga that lasted through December 2019 and was reinstated this past July for another 12 months. Enforcement remains spotty, however, and the species faces many other less direct but potentially more serious threats: Their food supply is threatened due to overfishing, and their habitat has been fragmented by hydroelectric dams and polluted by mining, oil and gas drilling, and industrial agriculture.
While dolphin tourism might increase sympathy for the boto and economic opportunity for local people, the emerging dolphin-watching industry has led to disturbing social behaviors among the botos, such as competitiveness with each other for food and dependency on humans. Sometimes these interactions become so aggressive that experts warn they could lead to injury and death. Fernando Trujillo, a marine biologist and the scientific director of Fundación Omacha, an NGO that promotes conservation in Colombia and leads a program to protect river dolphins throughout South America, says dolphin watching could be conducted in a way that respects the animals’ natural behavior, but it would require training for both local guides and visitors.
Meanwhile, efforts to educate the public about how the boto myth has hurt women may have indirectly affected the species. The abuse-awareness group Daughters of the Dolphin, Never Again initially used as its symbol an illustration of a pink dolphin that was crossed out, to show how it was stamping out the stigma faced by victims of gendered violence. But conservationists worried that people would get the impression that the dolphin itself was the enemy, especially near the riverside. Most members of the women’s group are from the city and hadn’t even thought about how their name and message could encourage hatred of the boto. Daughters of the Dolphin, Never Again has since changed the logo.
“We used the image of the boto to say we must stop hiding,” Anne Cleyanne Alves, the group’s president, says. “All of the bad connotations about dolphins, we don’t have that as much in the city.”
Formed in 2016 as a support network for women, the Daughters of the Dolphin, Never Again conduct workshops in schools and rural communities on how to recognize abuse. Though many women in river communities expressed initial interest in the workshops, most dropped out because their relatives called them troublemakers, or said they would never find a boyfriend. The partner of one woman who attended a meeting sent the group a death threat. The Daughters of the Dolphin, Never Again have persisted, however, and over the years they have helped dozens of women report their abusers and seek counseling. During their work along the riverside, they say, they often see pink dolphins.
Maia, the Breves psychologist, takes me to what he says is the geographic heart of the boto myth. From Breves, we head north along Furo do Tajapuru, a tributary of the Amazon, by speedboat for about 30 miles. Maia calls it a cool day, even though temperatures reach into the 90s and the humidity is high. The river is wide, dark, and mostly shallow. Pink and yellow houses are interspersed on the riverbanks, framed by palm trees bursting with acai fruit. Even though these tiny townships aren’t far from the city, travel is difficult without a motorized boat, so most people subsist on what they grow and hunt, including the sloths that hang from the trees.
We approach the Melgaço District. It has the lowest human-development index—a composite of life expectancy, education, and income—in the region. One family tells us that they rely mostly on welfare, which they supplement by selling any produce they grow or fish they catch to the passenger and cargo boats that float by. Some women sell sex to the men on board in exchange for food, gasoline, and cash, but a woman named Maria Miguelina Santos Silva says her family doesn’t engage in prostitution. At this, two teenage girls standing in one corner look at each other and walk away, clearly uninterested in being interviewed.
At a community called Antonio Lemos, about five kilometers further north, we speak to a community health worker named Maria de Nazaré dos Santos, who says she believes in the boto myth. Dos Santos, who is 41, has a seventh-grade education. She thought she would eventually finish middle school; she recalls taking tests and never receiving her results. She and her neighbors talk about acquaintances who are said to have had run-ins with the mythical dolphin. When I ask specifics, such as who these people are or how to reach them, the stories quickly fall apart. The myth is everywhere and nowhere at once—much like the region’s sexual abuse and exploitation.
“Which causes more harm—silence or telling a story?” Maia reflects as we float away. “A story is at least a way of letting the pain out. Coming up with anything, even if it’s not the truth, supplies a solution to the mind.”
When I ask about the botos themselves, people insist that there are still many in the water. Even as studies show that the numbers have dropped, the problem doesn’t appear noticeable to casual observers. What’s clear is that for most people, fearful respect for the boto has been overtaken by their need to make a living in a changing world. Some consider them pests.
Before leaving Breves, I stop at a fish market, where, everyone tells me, I can for sure see a boto. Apparently they gather around the market all the time, drawn to the smell of blood in the water. One of the sellers offers to throw in some leftover fish, promising that I’ll get a good photo. But no botos ever arrive. I return home without seeing a single one.
Back in the United States, I watch as Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, continues to encourage development in the Amazon—and wrestles with a much newer threat. After the United States, Brazil has recorded more COVID-19-related deaths than any other country in the world, and remote parts of the Amazon have been hit especially hard. According to preliminary data published by researchers in May, the six Brazilian cities with the highest coronavirus exposure are all within the Amazon basin. In the past, colonizers brought contagious diseases to the region; now, the virus is spread in part by the growing number of people living on the rivers, who need to travel together in small boats for their basic livelihood and even to reach medical care. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, desperate to keep the country’s economy going, has posted tweets equating the virus to the flu and endorsing unproven treatments. After catching the virus over the summer and claiming to experience only mild symptoms, he continued to downplay it. In the Amazon, the virus has become stigmatized, and many of those who have it deny it.
When we feel trapped, it’s often easier not to face reality. But the truth doesn’t go away; it just perpetuates itself until we’re forced to take notice.
Shanna Hanbury and Débora Martins de Souza facilitated the author’s interviews in Brazil.
* This article originally misstated the state next to Pará as Ampará.