Forget for a moment that the last field season ended three, no, four months ago. And forgive us for leaving the end of the season largely to your imaginations. If you are one of the rare few that have read all our field updates, and followed the story closely, you’ll take this next story in your stride. No guarantees though.
We knew the end was near and the pressure was high to get that last bit of data – one last glimpse of the tagged groups, resplendent in their flashy little identity collars, one last attempt at spotting the anaconda and of course, one more night in the company of our fantastic team and station staff who had become family and would never quite revert to being just friends.For some this was easier than for others. Gideon, for example, had positively bloomed in the jungle. While others accumulated bites, sprains and strains, he seemed to draw his very strength from our redoubled efforts to gather all the information we could. My ankle had decided to give out, rather surprisingly, while I was doing nothing at all during the last friaje, which lasted some four days. This turned out to be quite beneficial for the project but acutely irritating to me, as it meant that I spent all day indoors, managing permits and answering interminable emails from our contacts in Peru.
In the meanwhile, we gradually transferred all duties over to the tail-end team, who were to hold the fort for some weeks after we had left. They were trained and we trusted them but it didn’t make it less terrifying to be left there with the reins of the project in their hands. They would impress us even more over the next few weeks.
Finally, our last day in the jungle arrived. We were almost done packing, all our trash was neatly sorted and ready to be recycled back in the US, and we had only one thing left to do – the final hike. I mustered the strength to hobble about on my foot, thinking of the months I’d have to recover once I’d left and feeling that I couldn’t leave without one last hurrah.
The morning began innocuously enough, with the team heading out to get some data on group FC. Gideon took the opportunity to head out early to Cocha Lobo, a beautiful oxbow lake that was accessible only via swamp but which contained a group of exquisitely beautiful Giant River Otters. We had spent ten months at CICRA without seeing them and not for want of trying! Truth be told, no one ever expected to really see the rare otters, but the lake was so beautiful and its denizens included such characters as the hoatzin, or the bird with the bad-tasting flesh, and of course, black caiman, that it was truly worth a visit.
About midday, the team returned to camp for lunch and we lay out in deck chairs on the front porch, letting flies drink our sweat and the breeze cool us off. A delighted Gideon who had, of course, been startled by a lone otter trilling madly at him from the river no less, and not the lake soon joined us. We groaned in unison, cursing his plentiful luck and the gods of sprained ankles. He had some unbelievable footage of the beautiful animal gamboling in the rapids created by a large tree that had collapsed into the river, all the while uttering that strange yodel so typical of the species. He didn’t see any other otters, so the song was for him.
That was only the cherry on top of his morning. He fell in swamps, disturbed a herd of peccaries, saw an impossibly large colony spider web, a kingfisher and even a blue crowned motmot, one of the prettiest birds in the jungle. The team had correspondingly entertaining stories to tell of the main group who had led them a merry dance through the jungle, on and off a particularly steep ravine. It seemed that the best tactic in the end was to station one person and the top and one below and have one person follow directly under them to get their spatial positioning recorded on the handheld GPS we carried. All in all, it had been an eventful morning for everyone.
Everyone but me, that is.
Frustrated at my lack of mobility I made up my mind to join them on our last afternoon hike. We decided to take the route less traveled and head out to a special lookout over a large and very dry oxbow lake some 2 miles from the station. We started early, to accommodate my slow progress and as a result, saw a great deal more wildlife than at our usual pace. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. We were a merry group, and there was something incredibly refreshing about hiking just for the sake of hiking, with no real job to do. We had found it impossible to do this earlier, and saved a few days at the end of the trip for some leisure hikes. Despite some enforced holidays over the last ten months, we had somehow always found ourselves distracted by monkeys and therefore, unable to really ignore them even during our time off.
This hike was different though. For one thing, we were hiking in the afternoon, when the forest is quiet and still, with all of its inhabitants taking a typically South American siesta. Not even our rather raucous party could have woken them. We saw a few skittish spider monkeys and of course, some startlingly still birds, but really nothing to write home about. When we took the last turn left towards the lookout, however, we spotted a pair of puma tracks – an adult and cub it appeared had passed ahead of us just recently. We followed their tracks right up to the lookout where they had taken a moment to check out the lake, just like us!
The sun bore down on the lake so strongly that it was hard to discern which birds were at the edge of the small standing pools of water left at the end of the dry season. We posed for some sweaty photographs, trying to include the fabulous backdrop and our grubby grins when Mary, excitedly pointed out to the lake, some 50 m below the overlook where something was causing quite a splash. We abandoned the photograph to whip out our binoculars and assess the situation. What first looked like a caiman turned out to be a beautiful otter, a large fish in its mouth, proceeding leisurely to the edge of the lake where it consumed it with much gusto. I had never seen an otter before and Gideon, who was in the same boat as I one day ago had now two sightings under his belt on a single day! Moreover, no one had actually seen otters in that lake before, believing it to be too shallow to support fish of any worth.
Our walk home, painful as it was for my now throbbing ankle, was a joyous one. In some way it felt like the jungle had rewarded us for all those hours of vigilance and careful observation.
I shall gloss over the following hours of celebration – so intense it was that I was beginning to think that they were happy to see us go. We blundered home at an hour at which we usually awoke and then, in what seemed like seconds, we climbed out of bed and began to move our belongings, and they were many, down to the loading dock. We would have to make many trips to manage it all, since we were taking almost half of what we brought back with us, unwilling to let the almost 100% humidity have its way with some of our equipment. However, we were pleasantly surprised when the rest of the team, all kitted out, showed up to lend us a hand!
Everyone grabbed a bag and we set off down the 256 stairs for the last time in a very long while. It seems impossible to be sentimental over, of all things, the stairs but when taken slowly at one’s leisure they could be very pleasant – more so going down than up. At the very foot of the stairs is a long walkway lined with crushed brazil nut shells leading out to the river. No sooner had I set foot on it than the air positively rang with a single sweet and long note – a saddleback tamarin long call. I looked up, and there they were, out of the blue, my favourite little nuclear family that I had watched grow and survive one of the harshest dry seasons and cold fronts that had ever occurred at our site.
We stood still, watching them cross the path one last time. From everything that we had learned about these animals this year we knew that it would be very likely that we might never see these specific animals alive again. The world was not kind to them and it took a lot of resourcefulness, wisdom from years before and luck to make it through the seasons. We had already seen two of the well-known animals pass away and several others just disappear in the way that animals do in the neotropics, leaving you to wonder at their fates forever.So I let my eyes feast on them and then, I too, moved on.
(I was going to let it go at that, but I have one last tale from the season that I think you will like to hear)
We spent the next day or two in Puerto Maldonado, enjoying a few last lovely meals and our first hot showers in…oh, I don’t know how long! We stayed at the lovely Perú Amazónica, a family-run hotel that had, amongst other things, looked after all of our team through several miner strikes in the past.
We were sitting there on our last morning in town, sipping on fresh papaya juice and eating fried eggs and toast when Gideon, in a manner that I thought I wouldn’t see for a long time, just froze. He cocked his head to one side and looked quizzically at me. I readjusted my position to face my ‘good’ ear towards the window (a rather bad ear infections seems to have left me without high frequency hearing in one ear, making it impossible for me to place my favourite saddleback calls even though I can hear them) and then, quite suddenly, there it was – a single, crystal clear long call. We looked at each other in astonishment.
“In the city?”, Gid murmered. “ That’s not possible!”
And he was right. Puerto Maldonado, unlike what you might imagine it to be, resemebled the final outcome of letting 700 macaques into a large multi-acre enclosure full of forest. In a few months, what you’d be looking at is carnage – every tree in sight would die, and even the smallest plants would give up on what was soon turning out to be a desert-like environment. In the tropics, due to the very thin topsoils present, the removal of large trees to build homes results in the complete destruction of the environment. Everything dies and you are left with cracked soil, baked by the incessant heat. Puerto Maldonado is one such desert. Gone are the mahogany and brazil nut behemoths. Gone even are the weed-like cecropias, sprouting up to make secondary forest. Nothing remains but dust settling occasionally during the rains. So, the sound of a saddleback in this setting is almost inconceivable.
What was more, we began to hear faint responses coming from very far away. TWO tamarins in the city?
There was nothing really left to do but to track them, exactly like we did in the jungle. We can tell you that it just isn’t the same in the city! You have to contend with store owners vehemently denying that they hear a tamarin, let alone have one, because they see you as someone representing the law who could get them in trouble. In the meanwhile this animal is calling so loudly that your brain is positively ringing with the sound. All the while, people around you are feigning innocence and refusing to believe that all you want to do is see if the little thing needs help and you WON’T report them if they have it as a pet! After a lot of badgering and begging we finally got permission to knock on a particular door that we had localized the sounds to, and sure enough, they did indeed have a baby tamarin in there.
Sadly, there wasn’t anything we could do about it as no one would enforce the somewhat vague law against holding “wild” animals captive. You see, when in India I could pick up a squirrel or bat or a stray dog, no one can convincingly argue that I was holding something wild captive. To me, those animals are perfectly normal parts of the neighbourhood – like dogs and cats in America. So it goes.
We never did locate the second animal though.