Wings of Fire

Group of many macaws on clay lick wall Peru.

Hell, if you're looking, is a tiny town deep in the Peruvian Amazon near the Bolivian border, locally referred to as Infierno. It lies on the shores of the caramel-coloured Tambopata River, turbid from a quick descent from the snow-capped Andes.

To the local Ese'eja Indians, the river was the source of Creation. "In ancient times from the rivers came man," says Santiago, who has lived in Infierno for nearly 80 years. Explaining Ese'eja cosmogony, he continues: "The river rays are people, very bad people, the caiman is the dog ... There's a parallel world in the air and another below the earth." There is indeed a parallel world in the air here, and it is this other world that has drawn us to the heart of the Peruvian jungle: At certain times, in a place that is like no other on Earth, the air is brilliant with colour as thousands of macaws and other tropical birds converge on a unique cliff that rises sharply out of the dense growth. The cliff is the largest "clay-lick" in the world, a 50-by-500-metre wall of the mineral-rich clay that draws hundreds of birds, including a number of species of macaws, eager to dine on dirt.

Ornithologists have only recently begun to understand the role of clay licks; initially they assumed the birds eat the clay for the minerals it contains. But recently they have discovered clay acts to detoxify the birds. "Over time plants developed toxins in their seeds to protect them," explains Donald Brightsmith, our guide and research director of the Tambopata Research Centre, a complex near the clay lick dedicated to studying and helping the macaws survive.

"But in turn the birds have also developed so as to be able to continue eating the seeds." The clay protects the birds from the toxins and helps flush the poison through their systems.

Some ornithologists speculate the macaws also come here to socialize. The get-together we witness certainly supports that theory.

We pull on our boots and silently make our way from the research centre, and down the trail. We settle in behind the blind at the top of the cliff. The sun is rising from behind the undulating, undefined blackness of the jungle on the far side of the river. A low mist crowns the canopy.

By 5:30 a judicious reconnaissance of a few dozen chestnut-fronted and red-bellied macaws flies over. "They're very cautious," Donald whispers, "they'll (watch) for a while in the trees around the lick, they won't risk their lives for the clay."

A sudden squawking gives a 'thumbs up' from the advance party, which is soon followed by a few dozen powdery-green, mealy parrots with chartreuse tail feather tips and a red slash on each wing. A few blue and gold macaws arrive as well, their chests glinting in the rising morning sun. Over two hours, five species of macaws, as well as parrots, parakeets and tiny parrotlets come to the lick, a total of about 900 birds.

Against the matte background of clay, the colours are iridescent in the sun - emerald green, Mediterranean blue, blood red, and pure gold.

Individually, the birds spend little time on the lick. They take turns sampling the strata of clay on the cliff. Sometimes a bird will peck a mouthful, other times it will grab a chunk with one of its claws and stuff it into its beak like an ill-mannered child with a handful of chocolate cake. Ever vigilant, the birds are constantly on the watch for eagles and other attackers. Suddenly a warning call sounds and a wave of colour lifts off and disappears to unknown corners of the canopy. Breakfast is over.

Research carried out by the Tambopata Research Centre could prove vital to the survival of the overall population of macaws, whose numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.

There were once 17 species of macaws in the Americas (they are a New World bird only), but the glaucous macaw is now extinct, and the Spix may be as well: The last one hasn't been seen since last October. Nine other varieties are listed as critical or vulnerable under the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The reduction in the number of macaws is all more the worrisome since, even in protected zones, the birds have a very low reproduction rate. It is estimated that only 10 to 20 per cent of adult macaws attempt to breed in any given year. While macaws that survive their first year are relatively long-lived, reaching the age of 35 to 40 before they die from eagle attacks, parasites or disease, they are also vulnerable to habitat destruction and poaching for the pet market and are occasionally hunted by indigenous people for food and feathers. In the security of captivity, they sometimes live up to 70 years.

The Tambopata Candamo Reserved Zone, in which the research centre is located, is too vast for researchers to conduct a census of any bird population. However, observers are confident the six species native to the zone are not endangered.

In fact, the region - a 1.5-million-hectare area set aside by the government in 1989 - offers the numbers and variety to allow the researchers to develop techniques to help the birds thrive in regions where they are vulnerable.

In the late 1980s, a young Peruvian adventurer, Eduardo Nycander von Massenbach, was drawn to the steamy jungle surrounding the Tambopata. Trained as an architect with a specialty in indigenous lowland building techniques, Eduardo had left behind a career in Lima to work as a field manager for a New York Zoological Society macaw research project in Manu National Park further north in the Amazon. It was there that he learned of the clay lick.

A passionate environmentalist, Eduardo teamed up with two partners to found a private ecotourism company, Rainforest Expeditions, and create the Tambopata Research Centre, which has housed tourists and researchers since 1989.

Initially the modest centre was used solely as a base for field studies funded by universities and organizations focusing on macaw nesting patterns and bird behaviour at the clay lick. However it quickly caught the attention of travellers looking for eco-adventures after a National Geographic article on the macaws in January 1994. Now tourism is a major source of funding for the centre, which also gets grants from research institutions.

Photographer Mike Beedell, Canadian artist Allen Smutylo and I set out on the seven-hour boat ride from Infierno to the research centre in a 16-metre canoe, just wide enough for two abreast through its mid-section. The hulls of the dugouts that pass us sit deep in the water, with as little as 15 cm of freeboard when loaded with tropical produce - bananas, papayas and Brazil nuts, all tarped with banana fronds. Some are powered by long-shafted outboards, cast far out behind the stern, the blades of the tiny props just below the water surface.

Our motor is large at 65 hpw, yet with our heavy load the canoe looks like a sofa powered by a hand-held blender. As we travel, the dugout's slight wake rolls gently towards the shore, where children, naked except for the splashes of clay on their tawny bodies, play in the water. Families of capybaras, the world's largest rodent, also gambol on the banks; the adults stretch more than a metre long, their Roman noses and small ears giving their faces a profile not unlike a lion's. Occasionally jaguars ease along these shores as well.

Yellow-headed, side-necked turtles lie nose-to-tail on logs along the riverbank, like a multi-car pileup. Sulfur butterflies flutter around their eyes sipping turtle tears. The scientific reason is that they are after the salt, but I prefer a more poetic etiology, reminiscent of a Rudyard Kipling "Just So" story: How the turtle lost its sorrow.

The short shoreline along the Tambopata gives way to grass growing in the silt deposits at river bends, then to the feathery blond pennants of cana brava, a relative of sugar cane, rustling with the breeze. Immediately behind the cane rises the thick wall of the jungle, like an impenetrable green fortress, receding into black.

An Inuk woman who had lived most of her life well above the tree line in the eastern Arctic once told me she had little tolerance for life in southern Canada, a reaction, I thought, to the hurried, materialistic life of the south. "No," she said, "too many trees. I can't see a thing." The Amazon would have blinded her.

Only a river wide enough to rend the thick fabric of the vegetation will allow one to step back and get a sense of the endlessness of the jungle. It is hard here to see the forest for the trees, but it is also hard to see the trees for the forest. Kapok trees stretching 30 metres in diameter at their base stand as pillars of the jungle, but philodendrons, orchids, ferns and the tangled web of liana and strangler vines fill in all the blank spaces.

Above, the wide-reaching tops of cecropia close off the sky like a 60-metre umbrella, except where some trees such as ironwood and almendro break through. Where the riverbank was exposed, we could clearly see the fragile base underlying this exuberant growth. Only a very thin veneer of topsoil holds the jungle together. Below it lies a nutrient-poor substratum of clay that provides a poor foundation for the exuberant growth it supports. Tree roots grip the ground tenuously like octopus tentacles on linoleum.

Set back from the water's edge 500 metres down river from the clay lick, the research centre is invisible from the river. Built a couple of metres off the ground to discourage bugs, the station is a simple, open-air structure consisting of four thatched-roof buildings made of wild cane, mahogany milled on-site and thatching made from crisneja palm leaf.

The buildings - a kitchen, dining area and meeting room as well as bathrooms and 13 guest rooms with double beds - are connected by walkways.

Besides the researchers who come to the centre for months at a time to conduct field studies and guide the visitors, there are about a dozen staff members living there, some with their families.

But Eduardo didn't just build for humans; he also built for the birds, improvising nests that hang from trees near the centre.

Researchers believe a housing shortage may be a factor in the macaws' low reproduction rate. Despite the density of vegetation in the jungle, there are few nesting sites suitable for macaws. One and a half square kilometres of forest can offer as few as one to two nests that are deep, clean and dry enough to attract a mating pair of macaws.

One evening around the dinner table at the research centre, Donald describes the problem: "Blue macaws use hollow palms that are open at the top but drain well. Scarlet and red and green macaws both use big, usually live trees with holes that have no standing water, are isolated from other trees and are not covered" by vegetation. The trees must be extremely tall, which narrows the choice to long-lived varieties such as ironwood, which can survive from 800 to 1,200 years.

After a few failed attempts with wood and metal nesting boxes, Eduardo and his team hit upon a design using PVC pipes about 35 centimetres in diameter and almost three metres long. "The macaws were definitely checking out the nests when we were hanging them, looking at us in a way that's very different from their other looks - and we've had confirmed tenants less than 24 hours after installation!" exclaims Donald, a research associate at Duke University.

Many of those tenants subsequently went on to have chicks. But all is not won once offspring are born.

In a typical macaw nest, only one to four eggs will hatch, and usually only one survives long enough to fledge. First-born chicks tend to be more vigorous in demanding food; parents concentrate on those chicks, neglecting those that lack the energy to beg for food. The less assertive chicks become progressively weaker, eventually leading to total neglect and death.

Scientists at the research centre have been experimenting with feeding techniques. At first, they removed the weakest chicks from the nests surrounding the centre shortly after birth and raised them at the research station. The researchers have confirmed that 11 of the 36 chicks they fed have survived, and three more are thought to be alive - an encouraging result, given the birds' fragility when they were removed from their nests.

The big news this year is that some of these now-mature macaws have bred in the wild. But many of them still return regularly to the centre to eat fruit left at the feeders for them by the kitchen staff. These they call chicos (even the females) - and saucy 'little boys' they are, too.

One afternoon I am lying in a feverish sweat under the mosquito netting of my bed, listening to the sound of the jungle just a few metres away. On the flight to Peru, Mike came down with the flu, which is now pinballing through the station. Today it is my turn to lie in a fog in the mid-day heat. A sudden rush of air woke me from my stupor. I flip over on my belly, coming eye-to-talon with a feathered voyeur standing inches from my head on the balcony railing. One of the cheeky chicos. He stares boldly through the thin veil at my barely clad body. His fire-engine red head and neck give way to a band of olive green and then cerulean blue wing and tail feathers. He dips and sways his head for a better look. His movement and his beady little black eyes, encircled by a white patch of skin lined with bold red wrinkles, make him look bloodshot and drunk.

He marches in, grabs the saltines on the nightstand with a powerful, four-toed claw and gobbles them, purr-squawking with delight. He then destroys a mini-bar of soap, snapping chunks off with a beak that could break a finger and manipulating the pieces with a tongue thick and dextrous as a finger. For about an hour he struts about the station, stealing treats, rearranging the cutlery in the dining-room and snacking at the feeders.

The research team no longer raises chicks at the station. Instead they hand-feed chicks in the PVC nests - a less intrusive technique that could be adopted elsewhere for vulnerable bird populations.

The researchers' interventions are quick but short. If a chick shows weight loss and lethargy one morning, it's put on alert. If its crop, or feed pouch, is still empty that afternoon, a bird-food formula is syringed into its mouth. It will continue to be monitored and fed, but usually within a day or two it shows enough vigour to regain the attention of its parents. Rarely do the scientists have to intervene a second time.

Feeding the chicks is no easy task: Using a crossbow, researchers first shoot ropes over a 30- to 40-metre-high branch of the tree they need to climb. These serve as permanent climbing ropes. Since there's only one nest per tree, researchers might have to climb several trees every day, wearing helmets to protect them from falls - and parental attacks. The scientists are regularly dive-bombed as they descend with the chicks to feed and weigh them on the ground in a stork's sack slung from a scale. At this stage the month-old chicks weigh about 750 grams. They are, at best, butt-ugly: Bundles of bare, wrinkled skin, they look like uncooked Thanksgiving dinner, with emerging feathers sprouting like fly-fishing lures. But with the research centre's help, many will live to become full-feathered beauties.

But it is not just the birds that are benefiting from Eduardo's efforts. In the mid-1990s, he and representatives of the Ese'eja community of Infierno began planning Posada Amazonas, an ecotourism lodge downstream from the research centre and near a smaller clay lick on a portion of the community's 42,000-hectare reserve. The lodge has brought desperately needed employment and community development money to the area.

Until the rubber boom at the turn of the 19th century, this area of the Amazon basin - the province of Madre de Dios, or 'mother of God' - had remained largely isolated. About a dozen native groups were scattered through the dense jungle. The rubber boom dramatically reduced the native population through a combination of epidemics, genocide, and inter-tribal warfare triggered by rubber tappers looking for slave or indentured labour.

A government campaign in the 1910s to develop remote regions of Peru by offering free land brought the next small wave of newcomers. A series of gold rushes beginning in the 1930s led to the construction of a road, which by its completion in 1965, linked the region to the Andean highlands and the coast. The most recent wave of immigrants came as thousands of people fled conflict during the guerrilla insurgency of the 1980s and early '90s. Today only six of the original 12 native groups have a population of more than 100. The Ese'eja have only five remaining communities, three in Peru and two in Bolivia, for a total population of about 600 people, down from 10,000 when the tribe was still flourishing.

It was largely to help the Ese'eja that Eduardo founded Posadas Amazonas, kick-started with $420,000 in grants and loans from a development fund operated jointly by the Peruvian government and the Canadian International Development Agency. The community and the company have a 20-year contract for the lodge, in which the two parties have an equal voice, but the community takes 60 per cent of the revenue.

Their collaboration includes workshops and apprenticeships to give the Ese'eja the training they need to work at the lodge, which opened in 1998; all16 operations staff at the lodge are members of the Ese'eja community.

The lodge, which looks like a larger version of the research centre, has 24 rooms, and dining facilities for 80.

Young Peruvian naturalists guide the tourists on jungle walks to the nearby clay lick and to a bird-watching blind seven storeys high that resembles a wooden water tower.

The tower offers a stunning view of the surrounding, seemingly infinite jungle. More importantly, it brings you up to the action: It is here, in the canopy, that most of the jungle's inhabitants live. In fact, it is in this region that Smithsonian Institute entomologist Terry Erwin proved, by surveying the number of insects in the canopy in the 1980s, there were actually 10 times as many insect species in the world as previously thought - about 30 million, as opposed to two or three million.

Small wonder, then, that the lodge has been a success, drawing visitors from around the world. Income from tourism is used to support community projects, such as improving health care and education, and offering support to artisans. Eduardo's partner Kurt Holle says about 10,000 people have visited the lodge since it opened, some 4,200 last year alone. Last year the community made a profit of $24,000 from the lodge as well as around $100,000 from wages and sales of handicrafts.

Angelica Shajao and Cesar Econema are among the Ese-eja who have benefited from those projects. One afternoon, as I sit on a plank bench outside their clay hut down the river from Posada Amazonas, Cesar tells me how, before the lodge opened, he had laboured most of his life picking Brazil nuts.

A backbreaking day of work, often far from home, would produce at most four sacks of nuts, for a maximum monthly income of $125. To make matters worse, the work was seasonal, and there was no job security. Now, working together at home, the two have doubled their monthly income producing balsa handcrafts sold at the lodge.

Rainforest Expeditions' efforts have not gone unnoticed: Last year, the company was awarded Conservation International's Eco-tourism Excellence Award as well as Conde Nast's Eco-tourism Award.

At dusk, oil lamps and torches are lit around the research centre. There is no electricity apart from a frugally used generator, its faint putter from behind the kitchen ceasing after dinner. But the jungle is never silent: Many times I awoke before dawn to the distant, militaristic sound of howler monkeys - a deep, collective chant, like soccer hooligans gearing up to stage an attack. During the day a monotonous buzz punctuated by bird calls creates a white noise. In the evening, the sounds of birds and bugs give way to nocturnal noises. A number of times at this hour I heard an unidentified bird call reminiscent of the rapid volleys of pro tennis.

Only once were the monologues and dialogues of the jungle silenced. Late one afternoon I lay on my bed under the mosquito netting. Temperatures had remained steady in the upper 30s, with very high humidity during the day and little respite at night. In the distance the first rumble of thunder could be heard. By the time the storm had arrived a half-hour later, all the bird and insect sounds had ceased - all but one. One tiny voice, like that of a chickadee, dared to speak while the supreme voice of the heavens thundered out its fury, hubris among the humility. Then with one sudden, earth-shaking clap, the skies opened.

It is hard to identify jungle sounds that are filtered through the impenetrable wall of foliage. That whistle in the distance may be the call of an animal or bird, but then again, it may be that of a tunche, a demon of the forest many Ese'eja still fear. Insult him and he'll curse you with illness, remedied only by special herbs and the burned horn of a cow.

Careful of the chullachaqui spirit as well, a demon who lures people into the jungle, where they quickly become lost. "Wear a shirt inside out and tie a plant belt around your waist," I was advised, "that'll save you."

But even a forest demon can deter me from venturing out into the jungle. Because here, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, up the Tambopata River from Hell, that sound in the distance may be the cry of a macaw winging its way towards a cliff where hundreds of other birds are also gathering.

The scene at daybreak is unforgettable: A multitude of avian voices sound out the morning's arrival. And as the sun breaks above the canopy, a swirl of bright-feathered birds turns that wall of clay into a shimmering and riotous palette of scarlet, blue and gold.

Written by Pamela Coulston
Published September 2, 2001
The Ottawa Citizen (Citizen Weekly section)

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