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Ecotourism: exploring deepest, darkest Peru

Ecotourism: exploring deepest, darkest Peru

Posted by Juan Gavasa on June 10, 2014

There are many terms you can use to describe the forest in deepest, darkest Peru. Generically it is part of the Amazonian rainforest, that vast expanse of land and water that extends into no fewer than nine South American countries and which breathes life (and oxygen) into the rest of the world. Within that, there’s the primary and the secondary rainforests; the tropical and the subtropical rainforests; the highland and the lowland rainforests. And then there’s my favourite, the cloud forest, that almost mystical, mist-infused, fern-filled zone between the mountains and the mass of greenery and fecundity below.

We were deep in the cloud forest following a dreamlike day spent driving down from the dizzying heights of the former Incan (and Spanish) Andean mountain stronghold of Cusco and had come to rest in a lodge perched just above what is recognised by Unesco as one of the greatest primary rainforests on Earth – the Manu Biosphere Reserve.

There was a freshness (and friskiness) in the air, and wisps of cloud enveloped us as we rose at 5am to witness one of the great sights of Peru: the early-morning mating rituals of the country’s national bird – the (aptly named) Cock-of-the-Rock.

Sleep-filled though our eyes may have been, they quickly acquired focus as binoculars were trained on the dense canopy. For there through the foliage came thrilling flashes of the brilliant orange and red of the male Cock-of-the-Rock, engaging in John Travolta-like displays of dance-floor dexterity in the hope of winning the favours of the more modestly (brown) hued female of the species.

The brasher males flashed their feathers and swayed their bright beaks with abandon; there were flurries of excitement and lots of tuneful twitterings. Some broke into high-pitched song; others cried out more soulfully. Occasionally there was evidence of some good old-fashioned alpha male rivalry and a ruffling of feathers. And then, every once in a while, there would be a discreet fluttering of wings as one of the females came out of hiding to indicate assent, after which she and the lucky male selected would, well, disappear into the bushes.

There were smiles all round at this merry early-morning dance. What a way to begin an adventure in the Amazonian rainforest.

There was more to come over the coming days: thrilling sightings of blue and gold-coloured macaws, fabulous large-billed toucans and orange-and-red crested hoatzins (it’s extraordinary how quickly one picks up the language – and the passion – of the birder); late-night walks through forests filled with strange sounds (the unique gurgles of the oropendola) scents and sensations (early-morning howler monkey wake-up calls). There were to be profound insights and thought-provoking discussions; moments of silent awe and wonder. And there were to be many laughs along the way. But first we had to get to the rainforest proper.

My trip was the result of a new pairing between the adventure travel operator Exodus and crees, a brave venture in the lush secondary rainforest on the borders of the Manu that for more than 10 years has been a focal point for research into the vast range and diversity of wildlife in this part of the world and, crucially, into how best to sustain (and regenerate) the remarkable environment in which it is found.

Viewers of the current BBC Two series I Bought a Rainforest will already have gained an insight into some of the characters who are engaged in the crees project as these are the very people to whom the programme’s protagonist, Charlie Hamilton James, turned for guidance in the course of his own bid to “save the rainforest”.

In last Sunday’s first instalment, Andy Whitworth, the scientific co-ordinator for crees, was seen introducing Hamilton James to some of the region’s most famous wildlife, including a puma (captured by a camera trap as it came for salt at a clay lick) and some of the profusion of plant and insect life that had grown up around an ancient mahogany tree destined for the chop.

On our trip, one of the first eco tours in which crees has been involved, we too had the benefit of Andy’s considerable knowledge and enthusiasm for the Amazon, observing him communing directly with red howler monkeys, guiding us to the vivid sight of the bright white eyes of the black caiman by night, and listening to him – in between demonstrations of how best to handle potentially lethal vipers – explaining how the work of crees and its team of volunteers really does make a difference.

It is to aid that work that crees took the decision last year to open up its foundation – in the idyllically sited Manu Learning Centre on the banks of the Madre de Dios river – to small groups of tourists wanting to experience for themselves the dramatic beauty of the Amazonian rainforest, and to become better acquainted with the complex issues surrounding it.

“People should come here and see for themselves how fantastic it is,” says Quinn Meyer, the British-American anthropologist, who founded crees in 2002 after spending a few life-changing months in the region. “Then they would realise that what happens here does have an impact on our lives in the West too; that the rainforest is something that is worth fighting for.”

It is easy to be cynical about such ventures from afar (we all remember the faintly ludicrous pictures of the rock star Sting with native Indian chief Raoni), but up close it’s another story.

We had travelled to the Manu Learning Centre via the port town of Atalya from where we boarded the low-lying motorised vessel that was to take us on the first of many mesmerising journeys along the Madre de Dios (a southern tributary of the mighty Amazon itself).

As we moved slowly upriver the vegetation got thicker, the trees taller and the sounds sharper in scenes of almost primal beauty evocative of the inspirational films set in this region by the German director Werner Herzog. (It was seeing Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo that first fired me with the desire to come to the Amazon.)

Primal turned out to be the right word. During our two-night stay at the Manu Learning Centre we were told that, incredibly, not far away there were still a number of “uncontacted” tribes – people who had never had any contact with the modern world and who still lived exactly as they had for thousands of years. (Mercifully there are no “meet the uncontacted” tours; instead, for their own safety, visitors are urged to keep well away.)

We did, though, venture deep into the Manu National Park itself, a region of protected primary rainforest covering an area of some four million acres (about the size of Wales) and one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet – more than 1,000 birds, 15,000 plants, countless types of trees (the kapok, the iron, the strangler fig), and rare mammal species such as the jaguar and the giant river otter.

To get there involved travelling farther up the Madre de Dios before turning into the slower-flowing Manu for the languorous journey to the Limonal ranger post (where we had to show our permits to enter the park) and on to the Romero Rainforest Lodge, a tasteful set of wooden abodes with mosquito-net-secured beds and en suite bathrooms.

Bizarrely, it was in the setting of the pristine rainforest that the alarm bells started ringing. On the way to Romero we had spotted clumps of wood tossing and turning in the swirling brown waters of the river; the next day in the picturesque setting of an oxbow lake on which we hoped to catch sight of a giant otter, the stillness was broken by the unmistakable sound of a chainsaw: the loggers were at work.

It got worse: towards the end of our trip, back on the Madre de Dios, we passed a number of people panning for gold and polluting the river with mercury. On our last day, on the road to Puerto Maldonado, we encountered hellfire scenes of devastation: great swathes of burnt-out land in which the trees had been reduced to stumps and the blight of open-cast mining hung in the air.

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