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The secrets of the

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Hot, heady and unforgettable, the Amazon is the world’s mightiest river, but, as Sophie Stafford discovers its wildlife can be elusive unless you know where to look

The Tigre River, an Amazon River tributary, meanders through the Peruvian rainforest 8

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Not all botos are pink. Youngsters are dark grey and become lighter with age. The pinkness is caused by scarring

the secrets of the amazon

Swimming with dolphins is one thing – swimming with piranhas is something altogether different. Hesitating on the edge of the skiff, I search the mudbrown waters for the flick of a fin that might reveal danger. But I can’t see more than a few inches below the surface and the water is 20m (66ft) deep. As I teeter in my swimsuit, I recall our guide – Ado – saying that piranhas dislike open, murky waters and prefer to hang around in the clearer, sheltered ‘blackwaters’ at the edges of the Amazon’s lagoons. “So,” he smiles reassuringly, “you can safely swim in the middle of a lake without attracting unwanted attention.” The piranhas are only dangerous when the water level is low and their food supply poor, apparently... Taking a deep breath, I jump into the tannin-stained depths. The water is surprisingly warm – like swimming in a mug of old tea – and as I bob around, I remind myself why I am here. I have not travelled to Peru, taking a slow boat down the Amazon from Iquitos to the heart of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve just to risk an encounter with piranhas. The aim is to share the water with the area’s most famous inhabitants – the pink river dolphins or ‘botos’. Botos are surprisingly easy to see. They are invariably found hunting around the mouths of the river’s tributaries and streams, where schools of fish are washed in from the lagoons. Despite their thick bodies, they move surprisingly quickly, their grey backs and bulbous heads briefly breaking the surface on one side of the boat and then the other. According to legend, the boto becomes a handsome young man by night who seduces and impregnates girls, then returns to the river the next morning. Such superstitions have helped to protect the species here as locals are loathe to kill it, believing this will bring bad luck. Unfortunately, today, we are the unlucky ones – and the botos are noticeable by their absence. Back on the boat with all my digits intact, I breath a sigh of relief that turns into an ironic laugh as I spot our elusive swimming companions breaching on the far side of the lake. With wildlife, it’s all in the timing Sitting in damp clothes, the journey back to the Delfin – our floating home for the week – seems longer. Night closes in quickly, shadows crowding the banks like wraiths. Suddenly, the boat’s engine splutters and dies. I can’t help but be worried. The Amazon’s flooded forest forms a maze of neverending channels within which you can

be lost for a very long time. Ado, who grew up on the river, begins to lean precariously over the prow of the skiff, shining a powerful torch into the dense fringe of water lettuce and water hyacinth bobbing at the river’s edge. Suddenly, I spot what he is looking at – a pair of eyes glowing red in the beam. As the boat eases forward into the greenery, Ado wields the torch like a pro to dazzle whatever it is until he’s close enough to lunge. Then, turning with a grin, he triumphantly hoists aloft a baby caiman! The Amazon’s tributaries are home to four species of caiman – the black, white-bellied or spectacled, dwarf and smooth-fronted. The black is the largest and most aggressive, but the more abundant spectacled caiman grows to a respectable 2.5m (8ft). At just a metre (3.3ft) long, this is a mere tiddler, dangling motionless from Ado’s hand. Holding out my arms, I rescue the poor mite from his throttling grasp. As I stroke its soft and surprisingly warm skin, the tiny caiman shows its fighting spirit and appreciation for my altruism by peeing down my still-damp leg. The rest of the Amazon’s wildlife proves equally challenging, conspiring with the great river to conceal itself from my eager eyes. You soon realise that this land doesn’t yield its secrets lightly to visitors. You have to earn them by learning what to look for and how to look for it.

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According to legend the boto becomes a handsome man by night who seduces girls

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Delving deeper But where do you look in the first place? Perhaps surprisingly, the Amazon river itself is not the place to see wildlife. Its wide, flat expanse of chocolate-coloured water hides a fierce current that sweeps most creatures away, so we begin our search in the quiet backwaters, creeks, lagoons and swamps. Here, the seasonal rise and fall of the water drowns the trees, providing excellent foraging for aquatic wildlife and safe roosts for birds and monkeys. Next up is how to read the forest. From the river, the trees lining the banks form an impenetrable wall of green, broken only by the pale trunks of kapok and cecropia trees and the fragrant white chandeliers of mimosa blossom. You have to train your eyes to seek out the spaces between their branches to discover what they hide. A swaying bough may be the only clue to the presence of a foraging monk saki or squirrel monkey. Even brightly coloured birds, such as macaws and toucans, can appear dull in the deep shade, making them tricky to spot, while morpho butterflies rest unseen on tree trunks right in front of you, their mottled brown E


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underwings camouflaging them perfectly until put to flight, when their cerulean blue upperwings shine in even the dimmest light. Iguanas masquerade as branches, basking high in waterside trees like reptilian gargoyles, whip-like tails dangling. Spotting these large lizards requires keen eyes and quick reactions. I can’t help but be startled when one leaps from a great height into the river beside the boat. Ado swiftly assures me that they are good swimmers and often use this strategy to escape predators. Even sloths – those paragons of unmoving stolidity – somehow manage to hide in plain view. Every morning, they perch high in the bare, upper branches of their own favourite tree – usually a cecropia or kapok – waiting for the sun’s first rays to warm away the night’s chill. But their curled posture and algae-tinged fur make them surprisingly hard for novices to spot.

In the Amazon, simply looking is not enough – you must use all of your senses H 02

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Lazing about We come across no fewer than four sloths during our daily skiff excursions, but would have passed them all by without Ado’s sharp eyes. One day, our resourceful guide points out a green-brown blob high up in a tree which by imitating the shriek of a harpy eagle – the sloth’s only predator – he persuades to unfurl into a sloth. The creature lifts its head, short-sightedly seeking the source of the threat, but when no raptor races out of the sky, its chin sinks back onto its chest and it promptly dozes off again. That’s enough excitement for one day! The final lesson is that, in the Amazon, simply looking is not enough – you must use all of your senses. Listen for the braying of Peru’s largest and most ungainly birds – horned screamers – which you usually hear before you see (they’re not called ‘donkey birds’ for nothing). And follow your nose. The smell of dung may reveal the presence of one of the Amazon’s most peculiar avian residents – the hoatzin. This extraordinary creature has a digestive system that is unique among birds. It feeds almost exclusively on leaves, which are ground into a large ball and then fermented in its oversized crop. The aromatic compounds in the leaves and bacterial fermentation give the hoatzin an odour like manure, hence its local name ‘stink bird’. My dream of swimming with botos will have to wait for another day, but the skills learnt in a week in the Amazon give a privileged glimpse into this magical kingdom and its strange and beguiling inhabitants. And if you understandably don’t feel like paddling with piranhas, don’t worry. Simply grab a stick and some shreds of beef, and you can go fishing for them instead. Ado tells me they’re very tasty.

02. A morpho butterfly basks in the sun, revealing its stunning colours

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03. Green iguanas are agile climbers and can fall 15 metres (50ft) without being hurt

Sophie Stafford is the editor of BBC Wildlife magazine in the UK. M Tune in E Discover more about the river that contains a fifth of all the river water on the planet in Amazon – Super River, airing on BBC America on Sunday 25 April. MAY/JUN 2010

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01. The harpy eagle is a ferocious raptor with claws as long as a grizzly bear’s and a 1.8m (6ft) windspan

Profile for Sophie Stafford

BBC Knowledge Amazon Feature  

BBC Knowledge Amazon Feature  

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