Tambopata – A tropical paradise in the shadow of gold | Part 1

Indigenous tribes, rubber, and clay licks in the Peruvian Amazon

by George Olah on 01 July 2020

“This is your captain speaking, please fasten your seatbelts because we will have a slightly bumpy ride” – I listened to the announcement on board a plane that recently left Cuzco. I did not even have time to unfasten my seatbelt since takeoff, but I pulled it a little tighter now. The city of Cuzco in the Andes mountains was just a short stop for my plane departing from Lima, which was now heading for its final destination, Puerto Maldonado. Also known as the capital of biodiversity, the small town is located in southeastern Peru, on the edge of the Amazon Basin, surrounded by lowland tropical rainforest. At least that is what I had read about it, because I could not see anything because of the dense cloud cover. However, soon we started to descend beneath the cloud layer and suddenly the tropical rainforest was fully exposed in front of my eyes! Broccoli-shaped trees of a seemingly endless forest formed a huge, contiguous canopy. It was an indescribable feeling to see this landscape for the first time. I had only read about it in books and heard about it in Attenborough documentaries. The date was the 6th of June 2008 and I did not know that I was going to be on this bumpy flight many more times over the next decade. Unfortunately, I did not think either that the rainforest beneath me would soon face great devastation. In this series of articles, I summarize my adventures and experiences during the last decade in this magical corner of Peru.

A band of the Tambopata River in the ancestral territory of the Ese’eja tribe. © George Olah

In the beginning

In order to understand certain connections in this tropical rainforest, we need to travel back much earlier in time. Let’s turn the wheel of time back 100 million years! We are in the middle of the Cretaceous period of Earth’s history, when dinosaurs still populated our planet. As part of the Pangea supercontinent, South America was still connected to Africa. A vast river system (named proto-Amazon-Congo) started in central Africa and flowed westwards via present-day South America and into the Panthalassa super ocean in the western part of the continent. About 20 million years later, the two continents split apart, but the proto Amazon River continued to cross South America from east to west. However, 15 million years ago, something happened in the Miocene epoch that fundamentally changed South America: due to plate tectonic movements, the Andean mountain system began to rise on the western side of the continent. The path of the ancient river was blocked, and the center of South America was transformed into a vast inland sea teeming with marine life. This inland sea was then slowly transformed into a huge swampy freshwater lake, and the living organisms started to adapt gradually to this changed environment. Evolutionary evidence of this change is that today’s closest relatives of many freshwater species living in the Amazon River live in the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, 10 million years ago, the Amazon River began to flow eastward, and 2.4 million years ago, the largest tropical rainforest on Earth was formed: The Amazon Basin.

© University of North Carolina

The uncontacted tribes of Amazonia

Abandoned camp of an uncontacted tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. © Monte Salvado community

The first humans reached the Amazon Basin about 15,000 years ago. Today, parts of the Amazon Basin are still inhabited by tribes that have not yet come into contact with our modern society. In Peru, these peoples are referred to as “los no contactados” – the uncontacted. A few years ago, I was navigating upstream on a remote, narrow tributary of the Peruvian Amazon, the Piedras River, in search of macaw feather samples for my genetic research, which I will report on in more detail in other parts. After days of navigating the river, we arrived in the village of Monte Salvado (roughly translated as “the wild region”), one of the most remote communities of the Yine tribe on the upper parts of the river. The villagers welcomed us very hospitably, we received masato as welcome drink of cassava traditionally fermented with saliva – although according to the villagers they used sugar for fermentation. Whatever they used, it would have been impolite to refuse, and the lightly alcoholic drink effectively softened the experience of our first encounter with the tribal chief. We asked and were granted permission to stay in their village, and in fact, my research interested them so much that the next day I even had to give a presentation on my population genetic studies to the village.

Drinking masato while surrounded by hand-raised parakeets in Monte Salvado. © Crissel Vargas

We knew that Monte Salvado will be the final destination of our expedition, and we could not venture further into the forest beyond. Although the river continues much further, the “343 line” stretches invisibly in front of us, referring to the longitude 343000 UTM coordinate. Beyond lies the more than 8,000 km2 (3,000 square mile) indigenous reserve, which protects the tribes currently living in voluntary isolation, such as Piaci, Mashco Piro, Yora, and many other yet undiscovered indigenous tribes. In this sense, Monte Salvado is the guardian of their sibling tribes that are still “uncontacted”. The first contact – based on understandable lessons from the history of humankind – is now regulated by strict protocols in Peru. Our modern society cannot initiate this, only the uncontacted tribes. Some of these groups are already in the initial stage of contact, when verbal communication takes place from a suitable distance. The tribal chief of Monte Salvado has already been involved in such first contacts, as their language is probably the closest to those yet uncontacted. To our surprise, the chief offered to take us into the reserve a bit to look for feathers with their boat. These were pretty tense hours, constantly scanning the river edge, because if uncontacted people showed up, we would have had to retreat right away. This did not happen, and we managed to get a few feather samples. But even more surprisingly, we found a temporary campsite of the uncontacted tribes abandoned weeks ago. These groups live a nomadic lifestyle and are almost constantly in motion, they do not stay in one location for long. Yet, seeing the traces they left-behind made me shockingly realize that such tribes indeed still exist in this modern, problem-filled world, living in complete isolation deep in the rainforest.

The Tambopata region and the rubber boom

Puerto Maldonado is less than an hour’s flight from Cuzco and about 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) lower. The air currents rising from the tropics and colliding with the Andes often cause turbulence during this short flight. The condensed mist also results in heavy rainfall, it is called rainforest for a reason after all. Small streams and creeks gathered from the Andes of southeastern Peru together feed the Tambopata River, which flows into the much larger Madre de Dios River near Puerto Maldonado. From here it heads to Bolivia, then to the Madeira River of Brazil, which eventually flows into the mighty Amazon River not far from Manaus, and finally into the Atlantic Ocean. But let’s stay at the main scene of our story, the Tambopata River. Its name in Quechua means house on legs (tambo = hut, pata = leg), which probably refers to the traditional houses of the indigenous tribes. Because of the heavy rains, it is very useful to have a house on long “legs”.

Children playing around a traditional Ese’eja homestead in the native community of Palma Real, near to the Madre de Dios River. © Cintia Garai

Although its name comes from the Incas, the real indigenous peoples of the Tambopata region are the Ese’eja. I had the privilege to develop close friendships with their members during my many years of research in their native land. The Tambopata River is called Bahuaja in their tribal language. In the 19th century, they still lived a nomadic lifestyle in this region, mainly hunting, fishing and gathering in their forests. However, the impact of the Industrial Revolution did not leave this remote part of the Amazon untouched. Moreover, it has had catastrophic consequences for many indigenous tribes. The main reason was the tree locally known as sharinga (Hevea brasiliensis) or rubber tree. Increased demand for natural rubber (caucho) triggered a rubber boom in the late 19th century. Many indigenous men were abducted to drain the sap of rubber trees in the forest. This has also happened with the Ese’eja people, many men never returned to their families. Local production was kept in the hands of rubber barons. One such baron was Carlos Fitzcarrald, who founded the city of Puerto Maldonado. His cruelty to the local peoples was elaborated in the film Fitzcarraldo, in which he made people carry a cargo ship with steam engine through a stretch of rainforest. The scattered groups of Ese’eja in the Tambopata region were eventually brought together by the Peruvian government around the midst of the 20th century and given designated communities. One such community is Infierno, located a few kilometers from the mouth of the Tambopata, close to Puerto Maldonado.

Map of indigenous communities, protected areas, and roads in Madre de Dios, Peru. © FENAMAD

The mystery of clay licks

In this area of South America there are a particularly large number of so-called clay licks or collpas. These are exposed areas of soil where birds and mammals of many species come to consume the soil. This particular behavior is called geophagy (or soil eating) and is especially popular among parrots. And there is no shortage of them in Tambopata, we can observe more than 20 species here but perhaps the most colorful are the large-bodied macaws. The American biologist Charles Munn III began to study these species in 1984, mainly in Manu National Park. He hypothesized that parrots consume clay because of its physical and chemical properties to protect them from the toxic substances they ingest with their food. Parrots certainly eat a lot of unripe berries and fruits in the forest, which may have higher toxin concentrations. The Queachua peoples (descendants of the Incas) living in the mountains, still sprinkle a little clay on their potato dishes because of this effect.

A clay lick with scarlet macaws (Ara macao) in the Peruvian Amazon. © Oscar Vilca

The knowledge of the Ese’eja peoples about animals and plants living in the rainforest is an essential help for biologists. Back in the days, science knew very little about the natural behavior, feeding ecology, and breeding biology of macaws in their original habitat. Donald Brightsmith, my later supervisor, began studying these colorful birds at Tambopata in 1999. His research team revealed for example that parrots consume clay mainly because of its Sodium (Na) content, which is present in very small amounts in their natural food sources. This is not surprising, as Sodium is mostly found in salt (NaCl), of which very little reaches this region. Rainwater from the Pacific Ocean is blocked by the Andes, and the Atlantic Ocean is a massive 3,000 km (1,900 miles) away, so salt-rich rainwater does not come from there either. However, if we recall that the Amazon Basin was once an inland sea, it is easier to understand the origin of Sodium. This chemical element is so strongly bound by the structure of clay that even heavy rains do not dissolve it. Thus, when rivers expose the clay walls, it attracts animals living on a low-salt diet almost like an oasis in the desert. This sounds logical, but to unravel this mystery, one first had to get to know the natural diet of parrots in the wild, observe for long hours exactly which part of the clay walls they use, and then compare their chemical and physical composition. Plenty of biologists have volunteered over the years in Tambopata. In June 2008, I landed in Puerto Maldonado for the exact same reason.

Three species of large macaws consuming sodium-rich clay in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon. © Jeff Cremer (including header image)

In my next article in this series, I will discuss what other research biologists are doing in Tambopata and what dangers they face working there. I will also shed light on the impact of the emergence of ecotourism on the lives of the Ese’ejas.

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