Over the Rainbow
Deep in Peru's Amazon, visitors on a storied steamboat discover a bounty of colorful wildlife, from pink dolphins and scarlet macaws to giant river otters and black caimans.
The setting sun tints the clouds a vivid pink that darkens with each passing moment. Powder-scented flowers perfume the night air. Silhouettes of macaws show against the darkening sky, and a lone toucan flies in the distance. Leaf-nosed bats appear out of nowhere, flying erratically over the river, feasting on insects. We hear a strong roar through the trees; it's a troop of howler monkeys, which have the loudest call of all New World animals. Though they weigh only as much as a small terrier, their vocalizations can travel three miles through the dense forest.
Bodmer invites us to the boat's canvas-covered upper deck before dinner, as the rubber barons would have done. In the small bar Enrico Caruso's scratchy voice sounds from a gramophone speaker. Bodmer pours Iquitena, a locally brewed beer, and we clink glasses. "I've always been interested in history, so what better way than to link biology and biodiversity and culture and history all in one?" he says. "I wanted to do something more real, not just academic. That's what conservation is."
Soon he summons us to the formal dining room outfitted with a long carved table that's topped with lace and surrounded by 20 red velvet-covered chairs, each with the name of our ship,Ayapua, carved in the back of its heavy mahogany frame. Mouth-watering smells of salted fish, pan-seared plantains, and fried manioc, a starchy tuberous root, whet our appetites.
After dinner we pile into a small wooden motorboat to explore nocturnal wildlife. Soon Magalay Rengifo, a 28-year-old biology student at the University of Iquitos, switches on a spotlight and scans the shore. Slowly sweeping from left to right, the beam illuminates the forest at the water's edge. Rengifo is looking for reflective points the size of marbles.
With her long black hair kept in check with a bandana, she scribbles notes on paper secured to her clipboard. "Alli!" she shouts, pointing to a snag jutting from the water like a broken bone.
Our captain, Odilio Recopa, a Cocama-Cocamilla Indian villager from the area, points the boat in the direction of Rengifo's finger. We pitch to the right. Near shore, Recopa cuts the motor, keeping the light trained on an eye just inches above the water's surface. Slowly we drift toward the caiman. Recopa readies a lasso-like wire and leans precariously over the bow. With a quick pull he snares the foot-long primordial reptile.
The alligator-like black caiman tries to escape, thrashing water in every direction. Within seconds, Rengifo's skilled hands have taped the dark-skinned juvenile's four-inch jaws shut. Its tiny, scaly legs helplessly wave in the air until Rengifo secures them with a piece of rope.
She places the caiman on the boat's seat, and measures it. Even though it's so small, this reptile belongs to the largest species in the Alligatoridae family, and individuals can top 12 feet. After she weighs the caiman, she peels the tape off his snout and eases him back into the murky water.
Catching even one black caiman is more than researchers could have hoped for less than 20 years ago. "They were overhunted because of the pelt trade," says Bodmer. "Now we see very large ones quite frequently." Researchers find nearly two black caimans every two-thirds of a mile on surveys, which makes them almost as familiar as their cousins, common caimans, which compete for the same food and habitat. The black caiman's resurgence is now helping scientists to learn more about how the ecosystem can support both species.
The air around us fills with the distinct stench of rotting flesh. A dead caiman, floating belly up, appears in the beam of our spotlight. Rengifo explains: In spring males will fight to the death over a female, creating a floating cemetery of beaten caiman corpses.
After counting dozens of eyes glowing in the dark and another carcass, Rengifo turns off the spotlight and tells Recopa it is time to head back to the Ayapua. We are engulfed by darkness and the heavy smell of night-blooming jasmine. The flooded forest's shadows creep in and several light-colored branches take flight: great egrets flapping into the darkness.
Daybreak's cool turns muggy by mid-morning. On shore, we're eager to explore shading palm fronds and buttressed ceiba trees covered in twisted vines. Clearing a path with a long machete, our scout, Recopa, leads Puertas and me into the jungle. With each step, thick mud slurps at my boots. Recopa points toward the high branches of a kapok tree, and Puertas whispers: "brown capuchin." In the next several hours we spot 10 of the 13 primate species found in the reserve, including spider, uakari, and titi monkeys. Without Recopa's expertise, we might have missed them all.
Cocama-Cocamilla Indians' experience and knowledge wasn't always so respected; in fact, they were once considered outlaws in their own land. The Peruvian government first protected the area now known as Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in the 1940s, establishing it as a fisheries reserve in an attempt to save the endangered paiche. But the government's designation of the region as a full reserve in 1982 actually amounted to a defeat for the local people dependent on the land for survival.