Rainforest Ramblings

Ethnobotany and Primate Rehabilitation

After our day of wandering about Quito and seeing the sights with David, we were very eager to see what the Amazon would hold. After a very lengthy drive, we arrived in Coca, a little town from which we embarked for the Amazon. As we had some free time before our departure, we toured the local market and learned that the Ecuadorian government had restricted the hunting of most wild animals for meat. Thus the only meat for sale came from Amazonian fish, some of which were wrapped in banana leaves and roasting over the coals—I don't know that I've ever smelled something more delectable. What really caught the eye of our entomologists, however, were skewers of freshly roasted giant palm weevil grubs (see photo).

Besides these animal products, the market was filled with stalls of strange folk medicines derived from wild plants (about which we would soon learn). As we wound our way through the stalls back towards the travel station, we saw a newly caught giant catfish with black and silver striping travel towards the marketplace in the back of a taxi. It really is a whole new world here.

After a brief boat ride up the flooded Napo river (a major tributary of the Amazon), we found ourselves at the home of our new guide, Hector, a place fittingly known as "Monkey Island." Here he lives and rehabilitates captured monkeys to the wild with the blessing of the Internation Primate Protection League. One of the largest problems with releasing social animals to the wild is the difficulty they have in finding acceptance among others of their species. This can be avoided by forming a troupe of rehabilitated monkeys and introducing new individuals at opportune times. Once a functioning troupe is assembled, they can all be released together as a group, and they will help take care of one another and better their chances of survival.

In addition to rehabilitating monkeys, Hector grows a selection of medicinal plants, several of which you may be familiar with. Firstly, cinnamon: taken from the bark of a species of laurel tree, cinnamon is used to make a tea with sedative properties, for such purposes as lessening weeping at funerals. Secondly, the curare vine, the sap of which may be made into a powerful muscle relaxant, and is the basis of some forms of surgical anesthetic. Hector also introduced us to the Dragonsblood tree, the sap of which is a powerful emetic, suggesting that it might be useful later on if some of us became afflicted with travelers' diarrhea. No need of it thus far.

Toxicology Tour

After yesterday's exciting discussion of wildlife rehabilitation and traditional plant uses, it was time for a change of pace.

Today was devoted to learning how our society is unwittingly destroying the rain forest, whether by lust for oil, or simple use of products that use materials that were grown in clear-cut rainforest. I realize that this part of my blog post may not cause your hearts to thrill with joy, dear readers, but it may be the most important material we learn on this trip.

Our everyday consumerism affects the rainforest more than we realize - if you're fond of Oreos, French Fries, or merely use standard detergents or soaps, you may be inadvertently sponsoring the destruction of Amazonian Rainforest for plantations of African Oil Palm. These plantations have frequently been founded on the land of indigenous people, driving them from their homes without any form of compensation, and leaving the common people in the vicinity as poor and unemployed as they were beforehand. As we use these products, demand grows, and as our guide, Hector, assured us, he has seen destruction follow in its wake.

Similarly with the cinnamon tree—if you purchase cinnamon that does not expressly state that it has been farmed, you are likely paying for the destruction of wild cinnamon trees in the rainforest. Just think. Ecuador once went by the name of "The Cinnamon Country" for this very practice. Time has passed. We are not as benign as once we may have thought ourselves to be. Please, be a caring consumer, and strive to change this.

After this, we set out to Limoncocha, a 4600 hectare IBA (Important Bird Area), where our night's lodgings were located. We arrived in the early twilight and were greeted by many varieties of insects as soon as we turned on our lights. Despite humanity's greed and the destruction we leave in our wake, there continues to be an abundance of beautiful life, and hope for a better tomorrow, if only we will strive to create it.

Days of Birdwatching at Limoncocha

On our first morning in Limoncocha, we arose at dawn to watch birds and swiftly found that Hector was an excellent birder, capable of identifying mere specks on the horizon, not to mention the hundreds of birds we encountered on the Limoncocha Lagoon. During the next few days, we saw 60+ species of birds, ranging from the Purple Gallinule to the Wattled Jacana, and from the rather common Hoatzin (affectionately termed the "Stinky Turkey") to the very rare Horned Screamer. Many hours were spent on the water, examining birds from afar. Hector also led us on hikes through the surrounding forest, identifying plants, and finding many insects (including some stunningly beautiful, albeit intimidating, Bullet Ants).

It was one of our last nights at Limoncocha, our group skimmed over the water into the equatorial sunset, and then the following darkness. All of a sudden, Hector found a 4-meter-long Black Caiman, quite large by his reckoning (the largest they'd seen was about 6 meters). Unlike many smaller caimans, which would dive to the bottom upon encountering something as terrifying as a boat full of humans, this one was quite confident due to its size, and merely floated in the glow of our headlamps, lashing its long and crenelated tail until such time as we departed for our lodgings.

We came towards a final supper at Limoncocha. As darkness fell, all around us could be seen the glimmering lights of lightning beetle larvae, clinging to plants known as water lettuce. While it is sad to part ways, it was a beautiful place to learn about birds, and our hosts couldn't have been more welcoming.

Añangu Village

Following our time at Yasuni, we visited a Quechua (alternatively spelled "Kichwa") community-run Ecolodge (Añangu Village) for a few days of further botany, birding, and nature watching. We engaged in more hiking, and, visited parrot salt licks, and managed to see Howler monkeys, Wooly monkeys, and the Dusky Titi monkey, in addition to armadillo burrows for worms and Jaguar footprints. Needless to say, the insect life is marvelous here as well.

Of all the places we've stayed at, this one is the fanciest thus far - whenever we return from a hike somebody is waiting with cool washcloths and glasses of local juices. While it's been a pleasant rest, I think we're all looking forward to going on to the cloud forest in a few days.

Departure from Yasuni

We concluded our time with Hector and this Amazonian leg of our adventure by a 5-hour canoeing voyage, rowing up through some flooded gallery forest and varzea forest on a tributary of the Napo river (aforesaid to be one of the Amazon's major tributaries). Highlights of the canoeing include a baby boa constrictor, a white-browed capucin monkey that crossed the water by jumping from tree-to-tree (directly above our canoes), 2 Blue Morpho butterflies, and several fishing spiders.

In the west, as we returned, a rapidly fading sunset (a consequence of our position on the equator); in the east, Venus climbs wearily past towering Cecropia and Kapok trees to meet with the cloud-shrouded moon. A chorus of cicadas sends their song resounding through the trees, and the delicate fragrance of Inga tree blossoms lingers on the gentle breeze.

Suddenly, a flash of lightning illuminates the northern sky, past Añangu Village, and we feel the air swirl about us, laden with the scent and promise of rain as storm clouds brew in the distance. A beautiful last night to be in Yasuni Nacional Biosphere Reserve. 

Palm Weevil Grubs in a bowl of warm water (it keeps them alive and fresh) awaiting their roasting.
The Napo River on our way to Hector's island and Limoncocha. It's in flood stage - note the trees on the water, and the saponin froth on the water from agitated branches.
Here we see the extent of the Napo River's flooding - normally this, the pier to Hector's island would have a set of steps leading down to the water level, but the water's gotten high enough that it's been carried away.
Hector in the aft of our boat as the sun begins to set, scanning for birds and caiman.
Sunset on Limoncocha Lagoon, shortly before we encountered the 4-meter long Black Caiman. Note the water lettuce - this is where we found lightningbeetle (lampyridae) larvae.
It's never a bad time for beetles at Limoncocha Lagoon.
Half of the group in an observation tower built next to a Kapok tree - from here we could observe a troop of Howler monkeys as they traveled through the tree canopy below. Front row from left to right: Pauline, Hector, Cassie Peterson, Dr. Reding, Katie Carlson, Morgan Streyle. Back row: Chris Lovagnini, Less, Casey Greufe, and Cris Forrest.
The first course of lunch at Anangu Village in Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge. The moth garnish was added.
Canoeing a tributary of the Napo River on our last day in Yasuni.
A view of the Napo River as a storm begins to brew off in the east.