Herping in Peru

Part Two
By Philip Samuelson, courtesy of GreenTracks
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On Day 3, we continued upriver on the Rmo Tigre, and in the early afternoon we branched off and traveled up the Rmo Nahuapa, a blackwater tributary. It was interesting to see the clearly distinct merging point where this blackwater tributary met the muddier waters of the Rmo Tigre. The two rivers seemed to separate like oil and vinegar.

Our afternoon on the Rmo Nahuapa was mostly spent fishing for piranhas. We caught a few large ones, as well as a large pike cichlid, the latter on a lure. The piranhas seemed voracious enough to strike anything that hit the water.

Hearing a splash boatside, I was surprised to see Bill taking a leisurely swim. This didn't seem to be such a great idea with so many piranhas present, but after assurance that it was perfectly safe, I jumped in for a refreshing swim of my own. The highlight of this afternoon was when Russ, Bill, Carel and I headed up the Nahuapa in one of the smaller boats with Ashuco. Once there, we jumped into the water and rode the current downstream until we eventually reached the Delfin. Floating along with the sound of exotic birds and the lush jungle surrounding us on both sides was a memorable experience, indeed.

Avispas, a large oxbow lake, was the location we explored the next morning. At dawn, we once again boarded the small boats for a fascinating trip nosing our crafts into some of the remote fingers of water that ran deep into the forest. Several monkey species were spotted that morning (we found a total of 11 primate species during the whole trip), as were myriad birds and invertebrates. The comical antics of a large troop of squirrel monkeys was quite amusing to behold. They showed amazing dexterity as they flew through the treetops, jumping from branch to branch. Only a monkey can move like that!

Following lunch, we turned down-river, and by late afternoon we were back on the Rmo Tigre and ready for an evening of herping. This particular evening turned up a real diversity of species. Before heading out that night, however, we stopped briefly at a riverside hut where some friends of Bill and our guides lived. Sugarcane was cultivated nearby to provide a means for sweetening food, as was cotton for clothing fabric. One room of the hut was reserved for nesting chickens, and one of the rear rooms served as a kitchen. Inside this room, a fire pit and cauldron served to cook the family's meals. Stacks of dried piranhas and other fish were stored nearby for future consumption.

An Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus hortulanus) was our most notable catch that evening. We collected this slender beauty as it rested on a tree branch over the water. This particular animal was an attractive reddish brown with a very subtle banded pattern.

Just before dusk, we headed up a small tributary to reach a nearby lake. There, we planned to look for (and hopefully catch) some caimans. On our way to the lake, our path was blocked by a huge fallen tree. The rain forest is full of fallen trees, since their root sys tems in this type of soil are so shallow. It seemed like an exercise in futility to try to move or travel around this tree—at least to us North Americans—but our Peruvian comrades merely smiled and once again proved they were old hands at this sort of temporary problem. A few machetes emerged and wood chips were soon flying. They managed to clear away enough of this tree for us to squeeze around it, and we were soon continuing toward our caiman hunting grounds once again.

Searching deeper in the forest turned up a nicely colored red-tailed boa, Boa constrictor constrictor. The Peruvian form of red tails are often very attractive. The animal we found had rich cream colors and pinkish highlights. The saddles were wide and attached, and the tail was a pleasing brick-red color. In contrast to the ornery anaconda, the boa was very docile and made no attempt at all to bite when handled. This, too, was a young animal that was just 2 or 3 feet long, but it was well fed and in excellent condition. We considered ourselves very lucky to have found the two"heavy- weight" New World constrictors within such a short time span on the same evening.

Continuing back downriver in the direction of Iquitos the next morning, we once again met the Rmo Maraqon and the juncture where the Maraqon meets the Ucayali.

The Ucayali was a good place for seeing freshwater dolphins. Spotting these animals was frustrating at first. It seemed as if every time someone would say, "There's one!" I would turn to see only ripples in the water. I soon learned that you needed to watch the water like a hawk to get a decent look at them. The pink dolphins are the largest and most conspicuous of the two dolphin species found in the area. They are also the prettiest. Their pink color against the brown, muddy water of the Amazon and its tributaries is quite distinctive. The smaller dolphin species is grayish, and we saw them less often.

From the Ucayali, we branched off to visit the Rmo Yarapa. This allowed us the opportunity to visit the villages of Jaldar and Puerto Miguel. The villagers were all very friendly and more than happy to sell a wide assortment of jewelry, hunting instruments, wood carvings and other folk art (usually for just a dollar or two). The villages were also interesting places to see some of the native animals the Peruvians keep as pets.

After reaching the lake, the search began. With flashlights, we scoured the shoreline looking for the telltale signs of glowing caiman eyes in the reflection of our beams. Once located, we would slowly drift toward a caiman, keeping a flashlight beam trained on it, and once within grabbing distance, we would attempt to quickly seize the animal behind its head. After a few missed grabs, Segundo succeeded in landing a small spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) that was approximately 3 feet long. We held him long enough for a brief photo session, and then gently released him back into the lake. A few thrusts of his powerful tail, and he was just a memory. We had hoped to locate a black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) or two at some point on this trip, as they are not uncommon in the areas sur- rounding Iquitos, but this was not to be. The closest we came to finding black caimans was in the riverside villages, where there was ample evidence that this species is part of the native people's regular diet. On several occasions we saw large Melanosuchus skulls and jewelry adorned with teeth.

Because of our caiman hunting, dinner back at the Delfin was served later than usual that night. Our day was not over yet, however. Hunting along the nearby shore turned up some exciting finds later that evening.

In shallow water close to shore, Bill succeeded in bagging a young anaconda, Eunectes murinus murinus. Although small for an anaconda, this was still a substantial boid. In typical Eunectes fashion, it showed quite a willingness to bite if given the opportunity.

At Jaldar, I bought a doll that was constructed with a variety of rain forest materials. The head was a gourd of some sort, and the beard and eyebrows consisted of porcupine quills. On its head were two ears that were made from wild boar tusks, the body was carved from balsa wood, and it wore a skirt made from palm fronds. Tree sap appeared to hold the whole thing together. The young girl who eagerly sold the doll for a couple of dollars had a woolly monkey clutched tight to her chest. Although she agreed to let people hold her monkey, he was obviously a devoted pet, and he never let go of the iron grip he had on his small owner.

The only reptile pet we saw in Jaldar was a small yellow-footed tortoise (Geochelone denticulata) that was tethered to a piece of wood. Although the tortoise was offered to us repeatedly at a very low cost, each of us declined the offers. (Peru prohibits the export of most of its wildlife, and all of the Peruvian herps we found on our trip were left to remain in Peru.)

A large group of excited children as soon as we arrived at the village of Puerto Miguel. One member of our group was almost stampeded when she produced a large bag of bubble gum to pass out. (This is not an exaggeration. If you travel to Peru, candy is a big hit with the locals.) I chose to pass out candy a bit more discreetly, and thus was able to avoid being trampled.

No living herps were found in this village, but one of the villagers sold me a surprisingly realistic wood carving of a matamata turtle. The only obvious pet in Puerto Miguel was a gorgeous festive Amazon parrot (Amazona festiva festiva). This species is extremely rare in United States avicultural collections, so I found it fascinating to examine this bird up close.

The following day we left the Rmo Yarapa and made it back to Iquitos by late afternoon. That evening, we headed into the city for a taste of the local nightlife. One store we visited sold an odd collection of items, both living and nonliving. Authentic blow guns, harpoons and bows were just a few of the available items. Monkey and jaguar skulls were prominently displayed on shelves, and one member of the store owner's family took a few of us aside and showed us an attractive boa constrictor and anaconda. He only wanted a few dollars for these animals, but we politely declined the offer.

Later that night, many of us met up at one of the city's discos. The music was a mix of Latin American, United States and European favorites. Hearing familiar hits by artists like the Beatles and Rod Stewart sandwiched between Peruvian songs took some getting used to, but we had a fun time and spent several hours drinking the local beer, dancing and taking in the atmosphere. We made it back to the lodge by 5 AM—leaving just enough time to catch two hours of sleep and a quick breakfast before our return flight.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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