Animals of the Amazon
As Gustavo the owner of the Mahatu hostel in Leticia is fond of saying, the Amazon is a land of plants. True, there are is also a wide range of animals in the Amazon but animals are more easily spotted in the wetland regions than the dense vegetation of the rainforest. In order to view the magnificent creatures of the Amazon I checked out a couple of animal sanctuaries.
The first up was the butterfly farm and animal rescue center in Iquitos. I was astounded by some of the information I learned about the creatures in the center. The main focus of the center is the butterflies which are bred, hatched, and then a portion of the butterflies are placed on display in the large terrarium while the others are released into the wild. Unfortunately in Peru many people kill caterpillars because they look like worms or have bright colors that make them appear poisonous, when in reality they are harmless. After initially creating a cocoon, caterpillars completely break down their cell structure, transforming into a liquid form inside of the hard exterior as they begin to change their structure to that of a butterfly. Butterflies do all of their growing inside of the cocoon, once they hatch they cannot grow bigger no matter how much they eat and cannot regenerate any injured body parts.
At the entrance of the park are some free roaming, highly endangered red faced monkeys. Watching them wrestle one another amongst the trees was way more entertaining than the professional wrestling matches on tv.
Many of the animals in the park have been confiscated by people trying to sneak them onto planes or boats to illegal sell them outside of the country. This applied to two magnificent felines, an ocelot and a jaguar. The ocelot loves to be walked throughout the compound on a leash. The staff occasionally sprays parts of the cage with new exotic smells which capture the ocelot’s attention and keep it stimulated.
The jaguar has been living in the sanctuary for the past 9 years. The combination of grace and power with which it saunters is beautiful to behold.
The second Amazonian Park was the Mundo Amazonico in Leticia, Colombia. Here I went on a series of three guided tours teaching about indigenous vegetation, fish and snakes, and customs of the tribes people.
The first tour was dedicated to the vegetation of the Colombian Amazon. The majority of trees in the rainforest have very shallow roots, within the most superficial 20cm. The nutrients of decaying leaves provide energy for growth and roots expand outwards instead of a taproot growing as deep as possible. The majority of trees only have a harvest once a year, resulting in an abundance of certain types of fruit during different months.
One exception is the red, round fruit of the copoazu tree, which harvests 3x a year. Inside of the fruit are seeds that are related to cacoa and can actually be used to make chocolate as well. Not only can they make chocolate, but they can be used to make soap. Certainly a very useful fruit to have around.
There are many acai trees growing like palm trees in the rainforest. Acai is famous in the western world as a superfruit often added to juices and smoothies. The locals smash the berries into an unfermented wine, a bit bitter to the taste, which they drink and cook with. The trunks of the palms are cut down and used as the support for traditional houses.
The canhngucho is a massive tree from which hundreds of aguaje fruits hang. It is one of the largest palms in the rainforest and home to large yellow worms that live on the tree. The worms are eaten alive to help cure respiratory ailments such as bronchitis, asthma, and the flu. Sometimes they are placed on skewers and grilled for a smoky snack.
Estevia is a very common sugar substitute, great for people with diabetes. A leaf or two in your tea is better for you than granulated sugar and more flavorful in my opinion.
The second tour was about the customs and rituals of the local tribes. The most interesting ritual is called Pelazo, a celebration of entering womanhood amongst the Ticuna tribe. When a girl has her first menstruation she is secluded in a house. All of her hair is then pulled out by hand and presented as an offering. Her body is then tattooed by using ink from the huitillo plant. The ritual concludes with a dance upon which the tribe welcomes the now hairless female as a full woman in society. In order to create music and communicate they use the shells of large turtles as drums.
Our guide Rodrigo also showed us two forms in which the Ticuna tribe used to hunt. The first was with bow and arrow, pretty standard. The second was with a large blow gun, nearly 7 feet in length, tapering to thin tube at the end. We got to try both forms of hunting and I found my accuracy was much better with the blow gun than the bow and arrow, and much more fun to operate. When you have a giant blow gun in hand, nobody’s gonna bust your balls.
The final tour was dedicated to the fish and snakes of the Amazon. I never knew that electric eels send currents up trees in order to make fruits fall to the surface of the water, which they then consume. The eels are vegetarian and dually use their electric currents for defense. The paco fish, one which I ate on the jungle tour, uses spiked fins as its defense. When a predator gets close, it extends its fins with their spear like edges that make swallowing highly hazardous. This is another reason why many tribesman prefer to use traps so they can avoid getting punctured.
No tour would complete without mentioning snakes of the Amazon, like the mighty anaconda. Yet the lance headed viper accounts for most snake bites and fatalities. These small snakes hang out in the shade of tree stumps, where careless hikers often step too close. Snakes are actually more venomous when they are young (as a survival mechanism) and cause some gruesome injuries.
The majority of the most venomous snakes in the amazon have three colors, including the famous coral snake. The coral snake cannot puncture thick skin, but it is important to check the spaces in between your fingers and toes for pricks after being in the jungle. Hopefully if you find some it’s just a result of the mozzies getting at you, otherwise you could be in some serious trouble.