The Manatees of Panama

Sighting Neotropical mammals is an extremely rewarding experience, especially when it’s a mammal you might not have expected to see in Panama!

While Panama is a great place to seek out nature, it is not as easy as it may seem to see mammals in action. Many Neotropical mammals are nocturnal, while others are simply incredibly elusive.  While the opportunities to see animals in Panama are available, sightings requires patience, time, and a little bit of luck.

One of the lesser seen mammals in Panama is the West Indian Manatee. There are so few manatees in the country, many do not know these “sea cows” roam in Panamanian waters.
There are two distinct populations of manatees remaining in Panama, one in Bocas del Toro and another in Lake Gatun.
The West-Indian manatee (Trichechus  manatus) is considered a vulnerable species by IUCN. This is due mainly to habitat destruction along with illegal hunting throughout most of its distribution (Lefebvre, 2001; IUCN, 2007) from Florida in U.S.A., Central America to northern Brazilian coast.

There is little information available about the populations of manatees in Panama, with only a few studies documenting their distribution and genetic composition. What is known, is that in 1964 nine West Indian Manatees from Bocas del Toro, and one Amazonian Manatee from Peru were introduced into Lake Gatun by the former Panama Canal Commission as a part of an aquatic vegetation control program.  The program was abandoned a few years later, and the manatees were left to live in the lake.  

It is difficult to say how many manatees are still in the lake, but it is not many; a study in 1980 estimated approximately 25 individuals, a more recent study in 2008 found 16 individuals via aerial survey. With several calves documented, it is possible the population could be sustaining itself.

The 2008 report on the manatees of the Panama Canal Watershed also interviewed locals. The interviews revealed 59 sightings and a total of 17 manatee deaths between the years of 1995 and 2007. While the cause of death was not clear, in most cases it appeared to be collisions with boats.

While currently, little infromation is available on the manatee populations of Panama, environmental groups are working to learn more about them. Through process of interviews with local people these groups are raising awareness on the importance of environmental protection. Encouraging greater protection of Panama’s natural habitats,  will offer greater protection for the  West-Indian manatee, along with a wide variety of other animals.