Over the Rainbow

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. 

By Susan Cosier
Published: July-August 2010

Anybody caught hunting--even for food--was declared a poacher. Rangers from outside the area manned guard stations, confiscating fishing poles, nets, hunting spears, and knives. Hostilities mounted between those living on the land and those managing it. As a result, the Indians were forced to sneak into the reserve, hunting what they could. Wildlife populations plummeted. "We saw much less in the 1990s. And much more of the smaller species," says Bodmer. No one knew how the wildlife would fare in the long term.

Tensions exploded in 1997 after a ranger confiscated an expensive new net from a fisherman. Enraged, the fisherman attacked a guard station. "Three people were killed, two of them biologists," says Bodmer. In response, the government, with some convincing from Peruvian and American researchers, changed its policies and began involving locals in the reserve's management.

"If we don't work with local people, we're going to fail in our conservation," says Puertas. When the Indians are included in managing the forest, he adds, they take responsibility for protecting the wildlife, plants, and resources within it.

The government permits communities to take a certain number of animals each year to eat and sell, which curtails excessive hunting. "What the locals want are their resources for their future," says Bodmer. "They don't have a mortgage, they have a canoe; they don't have an income, they have a forest. The key to conservation is to find ways to help people, to find ways to help guarantee that the use of the forest will continue for a long time."


The next day we head toward a pocket of the Samiria River where we hope to see the reserve's holy grail: the pink freshwater dolphin. Across the Amazon, indigenous people regard these dolphins as humans who live below the muddy water's surface and revere them more than almost any other animal. "When one was killed accidentally," offers Bodmer, "the fisherman gave it a human burial." Robust dolphin populations show scientists that the Amazon's rivers are healthy. 

Anhingas perch on branches with their wings open, drying their feathers. Wattled jacanas with their bright-yellow beaks creep along the shore. We're scanning the surface for dolphins, straining our eyes to see deeper into the water. Minutes pass. Then we hear it: hooonnnkk. A bubblegum-colored dolphin breaks the surface. We hear a forceful sigh behind us and turn in time to see the bulbous head, beady eyes, and long, thin beak of a second pink dolphin.

Soon the arching backs of five gray dolphins, a smaller freshwater species, join them, shining in the sun as they crest. They dart through the water, chasing fish. "At first it was hard to tell between pink and gray dolphins," says William Bodmer. Following in his father's footsteps, the quiet, dark-haired young man is tallying the aquatic mammals we see. "Now I think it's easy."

Last year researchers counted more than 220 pink and gray river dolphins per square mile, more than ever before and double the tally for 2008. Bodmer says good fisheries management is boosting numbers, and oil exploration in the nearby Tigre River may also push some dolphins deeper into the reserve, possibly increasing the count. "Nearby rivers haven't been conserved in the same way, so we've seen a real increase," he says. "It's a very top predator in the aquatic system, a very intelligent animal, and there's a very strong tradition around it because of the strong taboos." 

The greater the leeway the government gives energy companies operating in the Amazon, the greater the threat to the forest. "[Pacaya-Samiria] acts as a refuge for these important species that you don't find in those numbers in other places," Bodmer says. "It's a huge flooded forest, with great diversity."

Back on the boat, Bodmer discusses his plans to expand his operations. This spring he opened a restored rubber baron's house in Iquitos and is currently in the midst of setting up a rubber-tapping community. He envisions forest managers extracting the resource and selling it to high-end carmakers at a premium. Automobiles with those tires could receive an environmental credit, while companies could prove that they're contributing to conservation.

Although the idea is still just that, it seems more realistic than Fitzcarraldo's vision of building an opera house in Iquitos. Herzog's hero and ours are both visionaries in their own ways. One was fixated on bringing music to the jungle. The other simply chooses to listen to those refrains while steering his ship through a landscape that he hopes will always feature the live soundtrack of birdsong and howling monkeys.

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Susan Cosier

Susan Cosier is former senior editor at Audubon magazine. Follow her on Twitter @susancosier.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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