Photo: T. Hilde
Our quarry on today’s trek through the rainforest of the Comunidad Nativa Ese’Eja de Infierno is the elusive white-lipped peccary (tayassu peccari), or ñho as it is known in the Ese’eja language endemic to this region. Ñho and its cousin johi, the collared peccary (tayasso tajacu), are prized by locals for their red meat, and unlike many of the species protected by the community for their rarity, ñho reproduce prolifically, and can be sustainably hunted by the Ese’eja. Armed not with traditional weapons, but with modern digital cameras and the same curiosity that has drawn countless explorers to this region over the centuries, our ‘hunt’ is not for the makings of a roasted peccary feast, but only for a photo of this creature in its natural habitat. Our entourage is accompanied by Oscar, an accomplished naturalist and guide from the nearby indigenous community, who is employed by Posada Amazonas, an eco-lodge rising from a clearing deep in the Peruvian Amazon, along the Tambopata River in the troubled region of Madre de Dios. With machete in one hand, binoculars in the other, Oscar leads us into the green abyss of the jungle, as we don our packs and set off in search of the ñho and the other exotic creatures who make this forest their home.
The ñho is nomadic, Oscar informs us, ranging far and wide, and capable of eating anything it finds on the forest floor, though preferring to scavenge in moist floodplains where a great diversity of food enriches its cuisine. Ñho travel in large bands, the chivalrous males protecting females at river and trail crossings by standing guard, to ward off intruders like us. As we make our way into the forest, and traverse a patch of deep mud, we find the first harbinger of our prey – hoof tracks, left by a pack of roving ñho. Along the path, we also encounter ground-foraging wild turkey, a fleet-footed lizard, tiny frogs in all shades of greens and browns, a red tree squirrel, orange millipedes, the powerful scent of a howler monkey’s urine, and a fist-sized mollusk dropped from the sky by a snail kite, and now bleached white by the tropical sun. Like a creation that seems to have been borne of Miró’s imagination, a colorful swallowtail emerges from this Amazonian canvas, with cream white wings, starkly offset by patches of neon lime and spots of candy orange, outlined with borders of the deepest black, one of over a thousand species of butterfly found here. Though even locals rarely see the armadillo, we find evidence of its presence in the form of a skeleton in our path. Scores of tiny ants, ubiquitous throughout this jungle, make a snack of what little flesh is left on its decaying bones. A hawk or an owl likely dispatched this specimen, Oscar speculates, though in the past, this armadillo might have met a more gruesome fate. In the hands of traditional luthiers, the armadillo’s external shell is removed, to construct the body of a ukulele-sized musical oddity, the charango. Though no longer sold commercially, in an effort to protect the armadillo, the charango is still in occasional use by local musicians, to strum along with the drum, flute and harmonica of their more traditional music.
Around another bend, we find a wooden blind, devised by the Ese’eja to camouflage our presence behind its screen of thatched palm leaves, allowing us to secretively watch for the ñho and the parakeets who feed at a clay lick here, where they obtain valuable mineral nutrients from the soil. Seeing no sign of ñho, we move deeper into the jungle, at times feeling less the hunter than the hunted, in a rainforest reserve that is protected by members of the community of Infierno – or “Hell”, as translated from Spanish. Like hell itself, dangers seem to lurk around every twist of the trail. We first encounter the wicumba, a spike-trunked palm tree, with needle-like spines up to eight inches long that have been used as hunting darts by Amazonian tribes. A fallen trunk of this tree leaves the spines protruding perpendicular to the forest floor, capable of piercing the soles of our boots, according to Oscar. Half way across a murky knee–deep swamp, I feel what I hope is only a harmless vine encircling my calf, as Oscar warns us to keep watch for the massive anaconda snake or the caiman, a relative of the American alligator. We later meet the yellow-thighed poison dart frog, which emits a mild neurotoxin from its flesh. More toxic relatives of this species have been used by indigenous hunters in the northern reaches of the Amazon basin to poison the tips of their arrows. We also find a thumbnail-sized tick, the garapata, as we swat away swarms of mosquitos. On one side of the trail, tiny wasps perch on a nest the size of my palm, while on the other, we find “bullet” ants at least an inch in length, sporting powerful mandibles whose bite can leave a human in pain for up to a day. Passing a narrow burrow in the ground, Oscar tries to lure a tarantula from its lair with a twig, but it won’t be drawn out so easily today, to the great relief of the arachnophobic among us.
Even the vegetation here can be an ominous threat; the strangler fig, this jungle’s only true parasitic tree, begins life snaking its way up a host tree, like a vine, slowly choking off the host’s access to sunlight, and eventually – over 40 to 50 years – killing and replacing the host’s former spot in the towering canopy. Unlike most trees in this forest, the strangler fig produces fruit year round, providing sustenance for animals during the sparser dry season. We also find a rubber tree, a species that was heavily harvested throughout the Amazon during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This “rubber boom” created horrors for local indigenous tribes, many of whose members were murdered or enslaved by colonial rubber barons, or killed by European diseases that the tribes had no immunity to.
The sentinel of the forest, ceiba pentandra, (kapok in English), is the largest tree in the Amazon. On this hike we find a monstrous specimen that Oscar estimates at 500 years in age, and I measure the base of its buttress at fifty lengths of my waterproof gumboot, or nearly 30 yards. Even with the 21 trekkers and three guides who comprise our group, we can barely encircle half the circumference of this giant tree when holding hands with our arms spread wide. Ceiba produces a soft wood, similar to balsa, which is used commercially for plywood production. But in local lore, as in the Mayan culture of Central America far to our north, the ceiba is thought to possess spiritual powers, offering protection to forest dependent communities, like the Ese’eja. Other trees provide the local shaman with a natural medicine cabinet, and the source of claimed cures to all manner of human ailments ranging from stomachache, to cancer, to unrequited love.
Highly valuable mahogany and cedar trees are illegally logged in Peru, though many still exist in remote protected areas of this reserve, and some are being newly replanted in the Infierno community, alongside shade-tolerant crops. But there are greater threats to the forests of this region, beyond illegal logging. Lucrative oil palm production is beginning to encroach here, resulting in patches of deforestation, and not far away to our north, a vast swath of rainforest is being stripped to the bare earth, by gold miners; the area is easily distinguished as one descends by plane into the nearby jungle airstrip at Puerto Maldonado. The resulting environmental destruction includes the loss of globally rare biodiversity, as well as the rainforest’s climate change mitigating stores of biomass carbon. These environmental problems are mirrored by equally devastating effects to human health and the social fabric of this region. Mercury, used to extract the gold from mined sediments, poisons the water and air, and is one of many factors contributing a life span of no more than 40 years for the majority of the region’s miners. Mining, much of it illegal, draws other ills to the fringes of this region, including human trafficking, organized crime, and political corruption. Many members of the Ese’eja have left their traditional agricultural pursuits, for these mines. But the ecotourism project at Posada Amazonas offers an economic alternative, providing jobs and income that have helped the community procure a freshwater filtering system, construct a secondary school, and undertake a host of other infrastructure improvements and social programs, while protecting thousands of hectares of jungle in their community reserve from the threats of deforestation and degradation.
As we continue the trek, suddenly Oscar cautions us to lower our voices, and we halt abruptly along the trail, as a cacophony of gnashing teeth, vicious squeals and retching sounds build to a frightening crescendo; the ñho are now in our midst. For what seems like an eternity, we strain our eyes to spot one through the trees, as they feed and scurry about the forest floor, but the jungle is not yet ready to reveal all its secrets, and our hope for a glimpse of the ñho begins to wane, until Oscar reveals one last trick of the naturalist’s trade. His impressive native knowledge of the ñho’s behavior has enabled us to come within earshot of their feeding grounds, but to see one in the flesh will require a modern technique. As Oscar reaches into his rucksack, I expect him to produce a tasty exotic bait to lure the ñho within our sight; instead he extracts an “mp3” player cabled to a tiny speaker, which he uses, like a bird call whistle, to broadcast a recording of the ñho’s howls in an effort to draw in our quarry. At last, our patience is rewarded with a bit of help of from iPod era technology, as a lone ñho emerges from the dark forest understory to take the measure of its uninvited guests. Despite its stocky build and the fierce façade of its grunts and growls, the ñho is a shy creature, and sensing a human presence, he quickly retreats to the safety of his own kind. Our quest fulfilled, we retreat as well, back to our own familiar habitat in the safety of Posada Amazonas, grateful to have experienced one of the richest realms of biodiversity on Earth, protected for now from the many looming threats to the forests of Madre de Dios, thanks to the foresight and conservation ethic of the Ese’eja.
– Hamilton Hardman