Tambopata – A tropical paradise in the shadow of gold | Part 2

Development of research and ecotourism

by George Olah on 01 August 2020

In the depths of the Peruvian Amazon, at the Tambopata Research Center, our radio receiver crackled, and Jesus started to speak in a slightly disturbed voice… No, it was not the apocalypse approaching, Jesus was a biologist colleague of mine from Lima trying to reach me at the research station. He was out in the nearby forest and repeated in his message that there was an accident, Gabriela (also a biologist from Lima and the wife of our project director) was bitten by a venomous snake during work. At first, I thought the message was just a simulation, but when it turned out it was for real, we immediately started organizing the evacuation. When someone’s life is at stake, it is not a reassuring thought that the nearest hospital is about a 5-hour boat ride away. Fortunately, however, the rescue operation was successful, and 10 years later, Gaby is still studying macaws in Tambopata, now with her 7-year-old daughter at her side. A lot of water has flowed down the Tambopata River since then, and unfortunately some of our colleagues have not been so lucky. For the Ese’eja people in Tambopata, the dangers lurking in the forest are a natural part of their life. But today, they face new, unprecedented dangers in our globalized world.

Gabriela Vigo with her daughter Mandy Lu studying macaws in the forests of Tambopata. © Rasha Aridi

Tambopata under national protection

The southeastern Peruvian Amazon is famous for its rich flora and fauna, and it is perhaps the largest and least disturbed area of ​​the ecosystems of the Upper Amazon and the Lower Andes. Not surprisingly, this pristine forest is often referred to as “rainforest.” Recognizing the special nature of this area, the Peruvian Government placed it under temporary protection first in 1990 with the establishment of the Tambopata-Candamo Reserved Zone. The natives of the region, as I mentioned in the first part, are the Ese’eja people, who live near the border between present-day Peru and Bolivia. At the beginning of the last century, their population was estimated at 10,000, but as a result of introduced diseases, migration, and the aforementioned rubber boom, their number today is only about 1,000 in Peru and they live in three communities: Infierno, Palma Real, and Sonene. After several years of surveys, the Tambopata National Reserve was finally established at the turn of the millennium, covering an area of ​​about 3,000 square kilometers of the Tambopata River Basin. At the same time, a strictly protected national park was formed, four times the size of the reserve. It was named the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park after the Tambopata (Bahuaja in tribal language) and Heath (Sonene) rivers, which are ancestral lands of the Ese’eja people.

Map of the Tambopata region. © InkaNatura Travel

The Tambopata Research Center and the Macaw Project

In 1987, Eduardo Nycander von Massenbach (an architect from Lima) joined the research team of Charles Munn III that was working in Manu National Park. Members of the Infierno community told him about the existence of a huge clay wall on the upper reaches of the Tambopata River, which was visited by thousands of parrots daily. Eduardo also saw this phenomenon when the locals took him to the place called Collpa Colorado (named after its red color), which was the largest clay lick of the world in that time. Eduardo’s team built a small wooden hut nearby, which served as an initial accommodation for biologists, photographers and ecotourists visiting this place. This small hut later grew into the Tambopata Research Center (or TRC).

The Colorado clay lick as it looked in 2002, the largest one of that time. © Donald Brightsmith

There were many macaws in the surrounding forests and the Tambopata Macaw Project was formed in 1989. Large macaws lay an average of 3 eggs but only one or two chicks survive in the wild. The researchers at TRC started working with the third eggs and chicks, which appeared to have very low survivals under natural conditions. They hand raised and reintroduced them to the wild with soft release. They were called the “chicos” (or kids) and most of them survived. Thirty years later, a few of them still nest in the surrounding forests and occasionally visit TRC. During the project, Eduardo’s team also began experimenting with artificial nests, which were quickly explored and used by macaws. Interest in TRC was greatly increased by a 1994 article in National Geographic and several documentaries, including The Real Macaw episode of Wildlife on One by BBC.

My first journey to the rainforest

My first time in the rainforest: on-board of a motorised canoe. © Kelly Jones

I graduated from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Budapest, Hungary in 2006 as a Zoologist. My journey to Peru in 2008 was not my first one to Latin America, I had previously been involved in field research in the arid Chaco forests in Argentina, and in the pine forests of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. However, this research project in the Peruvian Amazon was the first one for me in a tropical rainforest. I started my first field season in Tambopata in the middle of the dry season, as a volunteer field assistant. The average annual rainfall in Tambopata is about 3300 mm, and the dry season does not mean that the forest ever really dries out, it only rains less often than in the rainy season.

When I first arrived in Puerto Maldonado in June 2008, it was literally a dusty little town. Only the road between the airport and the city was paved, in other parts we just swallowed the dust. The local traffic was represented by motorcycles and tuk-tuk-like mototaxis, cars were very rarely seen. Apart from ecotourists and researchers, others were not really interested in this place. If anyone wanted to head for the neighboring Brazil, they first had to cross the wide Madre de Dios River on a wooden ferry. River traffic already included motorized boats, but these were quite weak, often 18-hp ‘peke-peke’ engines that had tiny propellers at the end of a long iron tube and were terribly slow and noisy. It took us a full day to get to the Tambopata Research Center from Puerto Maldonado on the river.

Ecotourism with the local community

Ese’eja people from the community of Infierno helping to build an eco-lodge in Tambopata. © Kurt Holle

When Eduardo first visited Tambopata in the late 1980s, the concept of ecotourism was still rather unknown. A few years later, he and Kurt Holle (a forest engineer in Lima) founded the company Rainforest Expeditions specializing in ecotourism. A special feature of their project was to involve members of the local Infierno community into the business. They built one of their rainforest eco-lodges (Posada Amazonas) with them and shared the profits. It was, of course, a long procedure to involve members of the Ese’eja tribe into ecotourism, as even the very concept of tourism was completely unknown to them. The founders of Rainforest Expeditions patiently explained to the families of Infierno how they could capitalize on their skills in this collaboration.

The Ese’eja people knew their forest very well, they knew where to build accommodations and from what material. The close-to-nature architectural solution in the lodges was that one side of the rooms was missing, and only a handrail separated it from the rainforest. It makes you feel like you are really sleeping in the woods. Members of the local community were taught English, and many of them became great naturalist guides. They knew the plants and animals that live in the forest and easily spotted them in the dense rainforest. This talent has been used for hunting in the past, but over the years it has been recognized that more and longer-term income can be made by avoiding logging and hunting. Ecotourism thus provided a compelling argument for the protection of Tambopata.

A scarlet macaw (Ara macao macao) in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon. © George Olah (including header image)

The Macaw Project and a documentary

Two-striped forest-pitviper (Bothrops bilineatus smaragdinus) in Tambopata.
© Dr. Zoltán Korsós

Part of the Tambopata Research Center also began to function as an eco-lodge for those who did not fear the remote wilderness. It is one of the most remote rainforest research stations, which also welcomes tourists. In 1999, Dr. Donald Brightsmith, a scientist at Texas A&M University, took over the leadership of the Tambopata Macaw Project. Under his direction, research expanded to a variety of scientific disciplines. The research team was joined by veterinarians who were curious about what diseases macaws carry in natural conditions and what their normal physiological values were. The research also employed volunteer biologists who mastered many research methods while working in the field. That’s why I joined the project for the first time. We mainly studied the nearby clay lick and monitored the presence of parrot species in the forest. There was not too much work during the dry season, so I also had some free time to learn Spanish with members of the local community.

A female scarlet macaw (Ara macao) with her two nestlings in an artificial nest box. © George Olah

The beginning of the rainy season (around November) is also the beginning of the macaw breeding season, so our work also began to intensify. The daily schedule and research management was led by Gabriela Vigo, a Peruvian biologist. We often climbed trees of 30-40 m (100-130 ft) high to check natural nest hollows and artificial nest boxes. The view has always compensated for the hard work of rope climbing in the tropics. Unfortunately, it was during such an inspection when Gabriela’s hand was bitten by a two-striped forest-pitviper (Bothrops bilineatus smaragdinus) that opened this essay. This was not the first such accident in that season, a month earlier a common lancehead or fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox) had bitten the feet of our botanist. Fortunately, none of the cases ended tragically. I had to replace Gabriela and actually conduct the entire field season. It was a big challenge at first, but eventually I got used to it, learned Spanish, gained a lot of research and local experience, and made lots of friends of a lifetime.

The charm and diversity of the place was captivating. The following year I returned to Tambopata as a PhD student of Donald’s, to study the nest preference and population genetics of large macaws. My university classmate, Cintia Garai – a primate researcher and nature filmmaker – often came to help me in the field while also filming our daily work. Finally, in 2016, we made a 26-min documentary out of it, called The Macaw Project – Biologists, Ecotourists and Local Communities for the Amazonian Rainforest. Our film presents Tambopata as an internationally applicable model that can help protect biodiverse regions in other parts of our planet as well.

The developing Tambopata

Over the past decade, there have been massive changes in Tambopata that I have witnessed with my own eyes. Today, even the smallest streets have been paved in Puerto Maldonado, there are no more ferries on the Madre de Dios, as a huge bridge has crossed it since 2011. This bridge was the last link on the Interoceanic Highway – which was a collaborative project between Peru and Brazil, connecting Rio de Janeiro with Lima –, on which regular truck and freight traffic began. Cars also appeared slowly in the city, and somehow life as such accelerated. The formerly dusty, slow, and small town in the rainforest had grown into the “capital of biodiversity”. Unfortunately, however, species richness suffers from this development.

Puerto Maldonado, the capital of biodiversity in present day. © George Olah

Nowadays, one often hears about ecosystem services. In fact, this is the production of the natural environment as measured by humanity’s money-centered vision. We can also look at it as ‘goods’ we get for free from the environment, think of the value of the trees cut down, our drinking water, or the gold in the rivers. In reality, ecotourism also benefits from the forest, and with enormous profits. This has now been recognized by many investors and travel agencies around the world, as well as in Tambopata. Today, boats equipped with 75-90 hp engines race up and down the rivers brimming with tourists. In the long term, locally owned ecotourism would in principle provide a sustainable income if properly regulated. However, certain events – such as previous landslides on nearby Machu Picchu or this year’s COVID-19 pandemic – have completely halted tourism in Tambopata and trigger people to engage in other, more environmentally damaging activities. But I will address these issues in the following sections.