João Campos-Silva’s research is strengthening community-based efforts to save huge aquatic Amazon species

The biologist and conservationist collaborates with local communities, who rescued a critical species from near extinction, and sees himself as a scientific supplement to traditional conservation

Photograph by André Dib/National Geographic

National Geographic Explorer João Campos-Silva has long been fascinated by the arapaima, since before it sprung back from near extinction just over a decade ago. The precarious state of the world’s most massive scaled freshwater fish over the last century, and its recent population recovery due to efforts from local communities, formed the foundation of his current research work facilitating community-based management of fisheries to ensure the arapaima, and its vast network of beneficiaries, thrive. So far, he’s witnessed tremendous success. “While most large-bodied animal species are declining, it’s the opposite trend [for the arapaima],” Campos-Silva attests.

In the Juruá River Basin, a southern tributary of the Amazon and the epicenter of Campos-Silva’s work, arapaima numbers have grown by 600 percent in the last 11 years, following the hard work of territory protection led by local communities and coordinated by the Rural Producers Association of Carauari. Where community efforts are at work, families of the megafish—which can reach nearly 10 feet (three meters) in length and 450 pounds (200 kilograms) in weight—are following this trend.

The rebound of the arapaima, also known as the pirarucu, is a testament to the efficiency of locally-led, community-based conservation. If Campos-Silva is to drive home one message about protecting the Amazon, its inhabitants, and even the global ecosystem, it's that collective action, led by local organizations, works. 

As a Brazilian scientist who has spent years building relationships with Amazonian communities, mostly in the Juruá region, he sees his role as supplementing Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ conservation methods with scientific expertise, and conversely, bringing traditional knowledge to academic science. For this reason he refers to himself as “a bridge” between knowledge systems. Campos-Silva’s work “does not involve local people,” he clarifies, “local people involve us.” 

Concerns about arapaima stocks first surfaced after local fishermen began returning home with empty nets. Commercial overfishing was depleting fish stocks. As a local delicacy, the arapaima is served for top dollar in restaurants across Brazil. Its symbolism in some Indigenous cosmology equates the arapaima’s importance with that of humans. When fish began disappearing, there was interest at every level to see them back in the water. 

Local communities in partnership with researchers and environmental stakeholders from Brazil’s Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute developed model in 1999 that established protected lakes where fishing and hunting were prohibited. In addition, local fishermen were allowed to harvest sustainable fish quotas that brought the arapaima back from near collapse, and rippled into economic and social benefits for families in the Solimoes River. The model demonstrated that such megafauna declines are not only reversible, but when harvested legally and sustainably, Campos-Silva explains, their populations can soar.

“It’s very important to be clear that the model was developed by locals,” he stresses. Campos-Silva is vehemently opposed to the idea of himself as a central figure, but wholly owns his role as a scientific partner.

Now, his supportive efforts have taken shape as a major research project on the habitat needs of the arapaima and other Amazonian megafauna with local communities and Indigenous peoples leading the way. With fellow Explorer Andressa Scabin, Campos-Silva has begun creating the first scalable model of community-based conservation throughout the Juruá River Valley as part of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition, to further understanding of the intricate role the Amazon River Basin plays in maintaining the entire ecosystem of the Amazon from the Andes to the Atlantic.

Campos-Silva and Scabin, who have both entered their 13th year of scientific research and conservation in the Amazon, returned from their latest trip to the field in late 2022, for which they partnered with local and indigenous communities to assess the health of six key aquatic species. Crittercams and GPS tags—including the first to ever be fitted on an arapaima—will track the movements of giant Amazonian river turtles, manatees, dolphins, otters, and black caimans. The data will map the perimeters of new conservation zones in an effort to scale up protection of healthy wildlife and human lives. 

Fifty Juruá River communities are collaborating with Campos-Silva and Scabin to complete the work.

“People realize that through conservation they can have a better life,” Campos-Silva says. “People are proud to be a positive example in the Amazonia. Our research shows that the arapaima management has boosted their self-esteem,” and impacted more than just fishermen. Women are forging their independence in new ways by filling jobs on boats, and the growing income streams are helping eradicate general poverty.

For Campos-Silva and his team, the day-to-day work doesn’t come without challenges. Trying to track down aquatic wildlife can be unpredictable, as is the nature of working in remote areas, and sometimes the demand for scientific results outpaces the reality of what the team’s collection bandwidth looks like on the ground. To truly work in tandem with local communities means understanding their needs, and to truly understand people is to not hurry. 

“To work with local community, you need to build trust,” he explains. “We need to be there to stay for a long time without the data collection, to talk about life, to talk about football or to play music together.” Justifying time for relationship-building is unorthodox for research proposals, Campos-Silva says, “but it's completely important. We cannot succeed without it.”

Investing time is how Campos-Silva came to understand the plight of the arapaima and how he could be a part of saving it. Initially, he was taken by birds. He spent two years living with local communities as part of his doctoral research in ecology, witnessing the pivotal role of human societies in preserving wildlife. It’s a perspective he carries still today. 

“Local people were always linked to threats, to damage to natural systems,” he says. It’s a one-sided misconception he aims to address. “But from a problem perspective, we need to move to a solution perspective. People are also a solution.”

The success of the arapaima, a product of human-led change, he explains, should serve as a blueprint for the protection of habitats, people, and wildlife. He’s hopeful the conservation methods used to revive arapaima populations will work on the five other species he’s actively working to protect. The success story is also a signal of optimism for a simultaneously prosperous ecological and economic future for the Amazon, and beyond. 

“I think optimism is a survival strategy,” he says. “The ability to imagine another future can create hope, and the power to fight for a better life and a better world.”

João Campos-Silva is participating in the National Geographic Society Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition—a two-year series of scientific studies spanning the entire Amazon River Basin, supported by Rolex as part of its Perpetual Planet initiative. Learn more about the expedition.

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.

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