Over the Rainbow
Deep in Peru’s Amazon, visitors on a storied steamboat discover a bounty of colorful wildlife, from pink dolphins and scarlet macaws to giant river otters and black caimans.
At first their calls are distant. I grasp the iron railing circling the boat’s deck and peer into the forest, determined to spot brightly colored red, yellow, or blue feathers among the densely packed emerald leaves. Harsh croaks give the birds away before their flapping wings and long trailing tails are visible. Trees rustle, and above the canopy there appear two, no, three macaws. From where we’re standing, it’s hard to tell which of the five species known to live in this locale are coloring the sky. Then we see their fire-engine-red fronts and electric-blue flight feathers: scarlet macaws. Their strident squawks continue well after distance darkens the departing birds’ colors.
We motor farther into the flooded forest. Blue-and-yellow and chestnut-fronted macaws cross from one side of the river to the other. Iridescent Amazon kingfishers wing just above the water’s surface, tightly hugging the shoreline.
We are heading toward the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Nearly the size of New Jersey, this five million acres of pristine Amazon rainforest in northeastern Peru is sandwiched between the Ucayali and Marañón rivers, and accessible only by boat. Our goal is to observe the extraordinary mix of wildlife that can be seen here and almost nowhere else—mythical pink river dolphins, menacing black caimans, giant river otters, raucous red howler monkeys, and an entire rainbow of some 500 bird species, from endangered scarlet macaws to wattled curassows.
In the past few days we have followed the trail that only a few thousand other people will trace this year, flying from points around the globe to Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, then driving an hour and a half in sweltering heat to Nauta, a small fishing village. There we board a boat that appears straight out of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo.Once a decaying carcass of steel, the restored steamboat used a century ago by rubber companies and now fueled by diesel, is a dead ringer for the ship in Herzog’s award-winning 1982 picture portraying Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (played by the enigmatic Klaus Kinski), a man obsessed with building an opera house in the middle of the jungle.
Our Fitzcarraldo is Richard Bodmer, 50, a biologist determined to save this forest. So intent is he, in fact, that with parts from eight different boats, he built a floating research vessel fit for luxury cruising through the heart of Peru’s Amazon. For the next five days Bodmer, a British-born bloke fond of gingham shirts, khakis, and loafers, will play the role of gracious host while four traveling companions and I double as tourists and scientists. Our mission: help Bodmer and his six-person crew ply this sunken forest for the scientific clues that will help keep it pristine into the next century.
Turning a bend in the river, our boat ripples the forest’s perfect watery reflection at flood stage, revealing to us why locals call this swath of forest “the jungle of mirrors.” More than 10 million years ago the Amazon basin we’re cruising through formed when the Andes rose to sky-piercing heights, trapping the water to create an inland sea. As the salt water drained, fresh water rained down, filling rivers and the low-lying jungle. “The result of that is these huge areas of flooded forest,” says Bodmer. “It has a very unique ecosystem in terms of the birdlife, the fish, and other wildlife.”
Beginning with the rubber boom in the 1880s, foreign barons steamed deep into the forest and, for a minimal fee, hired Indians to etch small channels in the bark of rubber trees, forcing them to weep the white sap that would form rubber. By the early 1900s the barons were making the equivalent of $2 million on each trip, and since the rubber tapping didn’t kill the trees, they returned to their leased lands again and again.
After the rise of rubber plantations in Asia ended the South American boom, the logging and mining industries moved in, filling the void. Trees were cut down, oil was sucked out of the earth, and the workers joined the local people in living off of wild game and plants, driving down wildlife populations. Although much of the forest remained intact, development was steady.
In 1984 Bodmer saw an opportunity to work with Peruvians to reverse the destruction. While earning his doctorate in zoology, he began studying Amazonian peccaries. He met and fell in love with Tula Fang, a local Iquitos woman who was also studying biology, and they married in 1986. Today Bodmer, Tula, their son, William, 22, and their daughter, Carolina, 19, split the year between Kent, England, where Bodmer teaches at the university, and Peru’s jungles, where he conducts wildlife surveys and hosts students and volunteers.
In the same forests where Bodmer met Tula, he also encountered Pablo Puertas, a sharp-witted Peruvian primatologist with a wide smile and a shoulder-shaking laugh who was one of the first to document the reserve’s 13 primate species. Today the two of them work with the 21 local Cocama-Cocamilla Indian communities in Pacaya-Samiria to preserve the wildlife. Puertas serves on the reserve’s management committee, and both he and Bodmer lead trips into the jungle for Earthwatch, a group that organizes volunteer trips, and AmazonEco, Bodmer’s own expedition company.
So far their research is yielding good news in Pacaya-Samiria. “Most of the key wildlife species are recovering, including paiche, the giant freshwater fish,” says Puertas. “Giant river otters, manatees, macaws, river turtles, woolly monkeys, howler monkeys, and caimans are also coming back. The results show that we’re succeeding.”