Extract from the BES Journal 2012
Aims of the Expedition
As the last one in a series of expeditions by BSES to the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, yet again we have linked with the reserve management and the Cocama-Cocamilla tribe who live in this region.
Our main aim was to collect further science data relevant to the reserve’s management plan. Working in partnership with reserve scientists and field assistants, we set up two science camps, one on Cocha Caro Wiuri and the second at Cocha Wiuri. These are near to the village of San Martin de Tipishca, in the NE tip of the Pacaya-Samiria just west of the confluence of the mighty Ucuyali and Maranon Rivers that form the Amazon.
Accessible only by dugout canoe on Amazon tributaries or cutting a trail through dense rainforest, the location of these science camps provided the expedition with our adventurous phases. Challenging individuals and teams on their abilities, skills and teamwork in testing environment was another key aim of the expedition, whilst understanding the importance of this ecosystem as they went.
Developing a deep understanding of the Cocama tribe’s culture and their relationship to the rainforest, was also an important aim for the expedition. Those explorers that completed the five week expedition spent the final phase working with local experts and villagers on community projects, designed to improve and enhance their community, whilst sharing knowledge and understanding of both cultures.
The final aim of the Amazon Cocama Expedition was to provide the Young Explorers with an opportunity to reflect on what the experience had meant to them on a personal level and how this will affect them in the future.
What was studied
A number of studies were carried out of species within the areas immediately surrounding the science camps. Transects were used to collect data on fish, mammals, birds and reptiles in the forest and on the cocha. Caiman were counted, captured and measured at night time on the cocha, with butterfly surveys completed at the camps. Further information on the data collected and its value to the reserve authorities is given in the science reports by Chris Wilson and Andrew Suggitt further on in this blog.
Background to the area
Iquitos is an oasis town within the Amazon, accessible by boat and plane only. The town developed with the rubber trade in the late 19th century and was our point of entry for the expedition before heading upriver to the village of San Martin de Tipishca in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve.
The reserve is the size of Wales, consisting of primary and secondary rainforest that has been inhabited by the Cocama-Cocamilla for centuries. The forest provides them with everything they need, except western goods! They eke out a living by using the forest as a resource with quotas imposed on the villages as to how much they can use the forest reserve for food, logs and tourism.
The extent of our expedition area was south of the Nueva Arica, San Martin and Bolivar villages and surrounded Cocha Caro Wiuri, Cocha Wiuri, and the two main tributaries in the area, the Yanayaquillo and Samiria Rivers.
A successful reconnaissance of the expedition in February 2012 with the Chief Scientist, concluded much of the initial planning on the ground and provided us with an itinerary for the main party in Summer.
The annual wet season floods the Amazon basin from February to June. This year’s floods have been the worst for decades, reaching a high of 1.72m above mean average levels. The Peruvian Government declared a state of emergency in April for Loreto region as villages had to be relocated from the rising water. This affected our expedition in two ways; firstly, crops were late harvesting in the area we were visiting and impacting on our ability to use local resources to supplement our supplies and secondly, high waters meant that we had to move one of the planned science camps to higher ground from the Yanayaquillo River to Cocha Wiuri six weeks before expedition advance party arrived on the 10th July!
Whilst an advance party of seven leaders were busy buying food and equipment, preparing science camps, and community projects, YE’s were frantically buying last minute personal equipment, excitedly packing and repacking rucksacks to get it all in. All too quickly, the day came for main party to depart, arriving at Iquitos in two groups without problem – a first for any expedition!
After a 10 hour journey upriver to overnight in San Martin, the whole expedition set off in their six fires the following morning to start their jungle training and preparations for their first phase.
This was the start of the adventurous and scientific phases with three teams rotating around two science camps, completing a jungle trek, canoe trip and a week at science camp.
The jungle trek teams were able to plan and hike routes that suited their abilities, water level and local knowledge, to get the best out of this challenging adventure. Trekking deep into the forest, wild camping and cooking, is no mean feat with a full pack on your back, as the fire reports later on in this journal describe.
Canoe trips followed the tributary rivers of the Samiria and Yanayaquillo. These true rio negro’s snake their way through the forest, with a wealth of birdlife and mammals to be seen along the way, including pink river dolphins, manatee, sloth and egrets.
The two science camps completed water and land based transects every day, collating data and analysing results as we went. With traditionally built huts, they form a base for science research and even had a proper toilet!
Many of the YE’s were able to complete their Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award as part of this adventurous phase, whether on a jungle trek or canoe trip. Planned, executed and completed by themselves, this formed a good test of the knowledge, skills and understanding of living and surviving in the jungle environment.
Following the departure of the 3 week YE’s, who returned to the UK via Iquitos, the 5 week YE’s went on to start their community projects. The four remaining fires were located in the local villages of Nueva Arica, San Martin and Bolivar. Living amongst the community and working with local experts they completed a variety of projects that included canoe making, palm planting and constructing clay ovens. This gave the YE’s the opportunity to discuss and share their skills and experience of the forest with the local tribe, and gain an understanding of what it means to them.
The success of this expedition was due, in part, to a highly experienced and enthusiastic leader team, and I am truly grateful for their dedication, knowledge and commitment to deliver an experience the YE’s will remember for the rest of their lives.
The success is also due to the continued support and dedication of Asiendes, the local ecotourism team of guides, scientists, field assistants and helpers based in San Martin and Rosa Vasquez based in Iquitos. They were an inspiration to many, our fountain of knowledge when needed, and provided a truly cultural exchange for all.
Andie Brazewell – Chief Leader
Science Camps: An Evaluation of Biodiversity at Cocha Caro Wiuri and Cocha Wiuri, Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, Peru
Since 2007 British Schools Exploring Society Young Explorers have been involved in helping The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve (RNPS) with their conservation management strategies.
Formed 30 years ago and covering some 20,800km², the size of Wales, the reserve is located in the north eastern part of Peru called Loreto. The reserve acts as the floodplain for 2 major rivers it lies between, the Maranon and Ucayali that ulimately feed into the Amazon river and is a seasonally flooded forest habitat known as ‘Varzea’.
The Loreto Amazon region harbours some of the greatest assemblages of animal and plant biodiversity on Earth (INRENA 2000, Pitman et al 2003) and the aims of the RNPS is to work with the 95,000 indigenous people in maintaining a successful and sustainable conservation management strategy for the reserve area.
BSES has been given the privileged opportunity to work with the local Cocama people and RNPS scientists in achieving their aims since 2007. As a part of the management strategy it is necessary to conduct surveys and censuses of key indicator animal species which give an indication of the health of the whole ecosystem of that area. The information gained from data obtained over successive years is valuable for monitoring trends and making future management decisions.
2012 represented the highest flooding conditions experienced in the reserve in 25 years. Data collated and analysed this year and its comparison with previous years’ data would, no doubt, show the significance of this flooding event on the biodiversity of the reserve.
In 2011 science work was carried out at only one camp. This year we used 2 science camps located on the banks of oxbow rivers called cochas. One was located, as in previous years, at Cocha Caro Wiuri and the other new one located at Cocha Wiuri. Science work, time-tabling and survey methods at both camps were identical. The young explorers undertook day and night time surveys of various animal groups over a 3 week period.
Day time surveys included the early morning and afternoon surveys of terrestrial mammals and birds and morning surveys of fish and aquatic and riverine birds. Terrestrial surveys included walking a 1.5 km route stopping every 150m for 10 minute intervals to identify and record by sight and sound individual mammal and bird species. 4 routes (transects), radiating out from each of the camps, were surveyed on a regular alternate basis. Morning surveys and afternoon surveys commenced at 6.00 am and 2.00 pm respectively.
A boat was used for the fish and aquatic and riverine birds. A 5.30 am start would ensure the best and busiest time for a bird survey! The YEs paddled round the cocha stopping every 200 m to do 10 minute count of birds perched, flying or on the water. On route back a fish survey would be completed at 1 of the 3 survey points on the cocha. Fishing using both nets and line and hook gave a better representation of the diversity of fish species present in the cocha.
The evening surveys were for caiman surveys. At 7.00pm surveys by boat were made on the abundance, diversity and population and age structure of caiman. Caiman were were located by their eyes reflecting in torch light. Caiman under 1.5m were muzzled, made safe to handle identified, sexed and measured. Larger caiman were identified and their age estimated at a distance!
In addition to the science work the YEs organised themselves to carry out the various domestic duties that ensured the smooth running and health of the camp. The enthusiasm and diligence shown by the YEs together with the invaluable help and knowledge given by the local guides, RNPS scientists and BSES leaders led to some fantastic data collection.
On our terrestrial transects 161 species of bird belonging to 40 families were recorded in the Cocha Wiuri and Cocha Caro Wiuri. 14 mammal species were also seen or heard on these transects including 6 primates, the tracks of the rare Jaguar (Panthera onca) and a day and evening camera trap videos of an Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis). For the aquatic and riverine bird surveys 85 species belonging to 36 families were found. Abundance levels were spectacular for certain species. At Wiuri, on the 8th August, dazzled and bewildered YEs counted a total of 1015 Neotropical cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) and a total of 4931 over the 3 weeks of surveying. Over 14,000 individual birds were counted at Wiuri! For both camps the most abundant species were the Cormorants, Great egrets (Ardea alba) and Tui parakeets (Brotogeris sanctithomae).
We captured a total of 872 individual fish between the camps belonging to 28 species and 8 families. Greatest diversity was seen at Caro Wiuri but greatest abundance was seen at Wiuri on account of the large numbers of armoured catfish species (Loricariidae) that are known to have an ability to air breathe and tolerate fluctuating water conditions.
A total fo 90 individuals of Black and White caiman species (Melanosuchus niger and Caiman crocodilus respectively). One rare and infrequent visitor the Smooth Fronted caiman (Paleosuchus trigonatus) was recorded at Caro Wiuri.
Life at Cocha Wiuri
A new camp and a brand new hut, built in the previous 1 or 2 weeks, welcomed the first fire of YEs, the Otorongos (Jaguars)! The camp was creatively designed, developed and lovingly furnished by the Otorongos with new found bushcraft skills! Tables, fire stands, benches, wash-drying racks and signage mysteriously appeared each time I returned with a group of YEs from survey work. They experienced a tropical storm which saw the sudden appearance in camp of a deadly South American Coral Snake (Micrurus Lemniscatus) known locally and appropriately as ‘Naca naca’ but the YEs were more concerned that a fallen tree might have broken their beloved table!
The YEs and myself (Chris Wilson) were in awe of our Peruvian scientist, Maria Torres and our local guide Constantino, both of whom were very knowledgeable. Maria, particularly, was superbly talented to identify bird species from sound as well as sight. A species easy to recognise by sound was our early morning alarm, the croaking ‘woo a woo’ bellows of a large ungainly bird called the Horned screamer named locally as a ‘Camungo’ (Anhima cornuta). Another favourite bird call was like a rasping cackle of an old women that was made by the Black Collared Hawk (Busarellus nigricolllis), locally known as ‘Mama Vieja’: the literal translation meaning old mother!
Fish surveys proved popular as were caiman surveys. Little did we know that caiman hunting inevitably led to the high probability of being slapped on the face by flying fish!
In the second week fire F ‘Fuego’ joined us. They were the Delia Smiths/Jamie Olivers of the jungle! Food creativity at its best occurred during this week. A determined effort was made by one member to lure butterflies onto an array of concoctions ranging from urine, salt and fish to honey, sugar and ‘Fanny’ jam, alas to no avail.
Water levels at Wiuri dropped 3.5m in the 3 week period leaving behind, what was once a extensive 4km long lake, a mere dribble of a river meandering through it. Bird and fish diversity and abundance changed during this period. We also experienced the rather curious death of the rather curiously named and heavy armoured plated Pine Coned Sucker Catfish! This was mirrored by a sudden influx and abundance of 2 species of vultures the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus).
Numbers increased from a total of 5 in the first week to 257 in the 3rd week! It was a rather depressing scene of death in the 3rd week for the arrival of Fire E! The curiosity of the YEs led to questions and theories and potential personal projects. What was noticed by YEs that local fishermen had been leaving gill nets in the cocha overnight. Did this have something to do with it? Certainly the success of catfish to inhabit areas that dry out is owing to their adaptation to gasp air to gain oxygen whilst out of water, however, in water many catfish can not get oxygen over their gills unless they are able to move forward…
The final fire were fortunate despite the ever increasingly muddying waters to see a greater diversity of wildlife birds and mammals. Maybe life that had previously been on higher ground was once again returning to its former dry season habitat!
Christine Wilson – Chief Scientist
Life at Cocha Caro Wiuri
Moments of waiting or trekking between sessions gave us some of our more memorable sights. One hot afternoon, as a group waited for a rendez-vous at the end of Cocha Caro Wiuri, an anaconda (Eunectes murinus) slipped out of the rushes to say hello. One tired group on their way back to camp after a four hour trek were reinvigorated by the sight of a ‘condor de la selva’ (Sarcoramphus papa) soaring high above them. And an amusing incident saw one of our intrepid science leaders getting licked by a liana snake (Siphlophis cervinus) while innocently checking the day’s records. Fortunately he survived to tell the tale (or should that be tail?).
The camp at Cocha Caro Wiuri was dominated by repeated sightings of the majestic Busarellus nigricollis, the black-collared hawk. This incredible bird was often found to be perched at the lake’s edge, supervising proceedings and eyeing our too frequent appearances with suspicion. The locals call this bird ‘mama vieja’: literally, the old mother. Their reverence for her only served to reinforce her quite rightful place at the apex of goings on, in an ecological sense. One magical moment whilst canoeing across the lake crystallised this view amongst the British contingent; our local field guide, Ceser, offered a piece of freshly caught fish to ‘mama’, who was sitting on a nearby tree. He threw the fish into the water near the canoe. The bird called to him, perhaps hesitantly. And then she flew, a bright flash of russet orange, expertly taking the bait and returning to her tree. Breathless stuff.
Throughout our time in the Amazon, trees could be heard falling, part of the continuous cycle of renewal in the rainforest. This sometimes acted against us: after a terrible nighttime storm, a tree over one metre in diameter crashed through the surrounding undergrowth to lie directly across one of our transects, requiring some handy machete work to clear the trail for use again. In one instance we saw one of these events in its full glory. Whilst on bird survey out on the lake, Ceser pointed to the shore and said ‘mirar’: look. Expecting a new species of bird or monkey for us to record, we turned to watch, only for a large ‘CRACK’ to ring out across the forest. On the shore, one of the trees seemed to move, slowly at first, jostling its companions for room. Then its weight finally overcame it, and it crashed to the floor. A gap in the canopy appeared, and freshly vacated niche was ready to be filled, which, unlike in Britain, takes ten years, not fifty.
A recurring theme was the overbearing sense of change in the forest. The vision of the ‘eternal tropics’ in early work on tropical wildlife has been proved inaccurate of late, and our precious few weeks spent there really brought it home to us how dynamic the environment is. As a lowland rainforest nestled in the basin of the world’s wettest river system, Pacaya-Samiria’s water levels are in a state of continual change. The wet season twice annually raises the levels, only for the dry season to deplete them. The locals adapt to this wonderfully: when the water level came up above the floor in the local guard station, they changed from sleeping on the floor, to sleeping in hammocks! A world away from (very British) rows over blame, insurance, etc. The shifting water level presented us with logistical challenges of our own, too: in the case of our more remote camp at Cocha Caro Wiuri, we could boat our supplies and kit in to set up camp, but the level had dropped so much in the intervening three weeks that we had to enlist the help of the cheery students at local conservation organisation Asciendes to help us carry it out.
Some of the more innovative solutions were provided by the young explorers themselves. When faced with the task of filling up our water barrel (again!), and making an eight person bucket chain to take the water from the lake to the kitchen, two of the more enterprising members of a fire opted to instead bring the barrel to the lake. This of course meant heaving the newly filled barrel up the shore (some 10ft or so!), which they did eventually manage- to much cheering (and jeering) from the rest. In another, inspired move, a member of the salvaje fire made themselves a ‘gaucho’ stick, used for checking for snakes in piles of wood, that doubled as a walking stick. Most importantly, the culinary wizardry of the explorers never ceased to amaze us leaders, and we were often amazed with the delights on offer at dinnertime: fresh-fried piranha, risotto, and fresh bread were some of the creations, hundreds of miles from the nearest haute cuisine competitors!
The determination of the young explorers also shone through when faced with problems during wildlife surveys. The infamous cushuri (Phalacrocorax olivaceus) migration of 31st July, in which scores of birds were flying over every minute, will forever be remembered in the minds of the three pour souls required to scribble down the tally charts! And on the day that twenty carachama catfish, complete with spines, were pulled out of our gill nets, their enthusiasm never waned. We are constantly reminded of that enthusiasm as we help the young explorers with their personal science projects, which will contribute towards the science report.
Curiosity is the first virtue of the British Exploring Society, and we would like to think that science is one of the best ways of satisfying a curious nature. Their curiosity about their surroundings saw the young explorers come up with some fantastic questions about their time in the Amazon: ‘why do we see more stuff on the transect closest to the local settlement?’, ‘why don’t the caiman try and escape when we shine the spotlight on them?’ and ‘why are white piranha more dangerous than red piranha if they’re smaller?’ were some of our favourites. And ‘What is ecology?’ had us running for the nearest text book! It is musings such as these that lead to ideas about the natural world; which in turn can become hypotheses, which can be tested and analysed, then conclusions drawn, which will feed in to our slowly improving appreciation of the world around us.
Andrew Suggitt – Science Camp Leader
For the first time this year, the community projects took place in three neighbouring villages, San Martin de Tipishca, Bolivar and Nueva Arica. This phase took place in the final part of the expedition after the science, trek and canoe phases. It was a special opportunity for the YE’s to immerse themselves into the community and culture of the Cocama-Cocamilla people after having already experienced and learnt a huge amount about the jungle environment and the complex people beforehand.
The community projects began in 2010 in San Martin de Tipishca, and proved to be unbelievably popular with the YE’s. We were lucky enough to be invited back by our hosts for a third year, living and engaging ourselves in Amazonian village life. The purpose of this phase of our expedition is to offer YE’s the opportunity to see how human communities form a part of the ecosystem of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Too often we see environmentally protected areas, “natural” areas, as free from humans. In fact, the Cocama-Cocamilla people of San Martín have lived for many years in harmony with the natural environment, and form a vital part of the rainforest ecosystem in this region. In visiting San Martin, we hope to integrate with the local community, to observe its way of life and contribute to that way of life. This is a community integration project, with a strong emphasis on practical project work. The latter emphasis is vital, as it allows us to become involved with the community, and to leave a lasting positive impact upon life in the villages.
The projects we worked on were specially selected and approved by both BSES and the community council of San Martín, Bolivar and Nueva Arica. We chose those that will benefit the village as a whole, rather than providing financial gains for any one section of the community. There were also a good range of projects for our YEs – introducing new skills, tools, and aspects of life in the Pacaya-Samiria. We aimed to make good progress on all of our projects, to bring many to completion, and to use our time in the villages to make new Cocama-Cocamilla friends through a programme of cultural interaction. It’s a privilege to be invited to work in the village, and a rare opportunity to factor the human element back into our understanding of the rainforest ecosystem.
The project phase served as an important element of the expedition. It can be extremely hard work, given the environment we are working in, and the lack of available resources to make the work easier for us, such as specialist tools. Through all the hard work the leaders and YE’s put in to make these projects run smoothly and successfully, the YE’s gained skills for life through an entirely alien experience to them. They committed and dedicated themselves to the projects at hand, and as a result benefitted hugely from the challenge presented to them. On many occasions the YE’s even developed their own projects with their communities, such as cookery classes and English lessons. It speaks volumes about the character of our YE’s, as they were always so prepared to be selfless and to integrate themselves into the community during their time there.
The cultural immersion aspect of this phase added to the experience, as being invited into the Cocama-Cocamilla communities for that length of time is very rare indeed. Often, the YE’s would tell us what an incredible insight they’ve experienced into another culture and many forged lifelong friendships with the locals. Working with complex communities allowed us to really get under the skin of a community and integrate ourselves into their culture. We really felt that we were not passing through as tourists, but we were becoming part of their community, working with them to achieve their goals and improve the overall quality of life.
The projects we worked on were heavily considered for their value and benefit to the community as a whole and our goal was to ensure that they were sustainable and that they do not entirely depend on the support of BSES to continue running. As we have developed a lasting relationship with the communities we helped greatly in achieving the project goals.
Lastly, The YE’s were able to experience how modern living differs from the work and lifestyle in the Amazon, and we encouraged the YE’s to draw their own conclusions from their experiences. The communities told us that they benefited enormously from the support of our YE’s, as well as the social interaction between them and local people. This helped to break down preconceived perceptions of western travellers and formed a deep-rooted and meaningful unison between different cultures.
Suzanna Jerrard – Community Project Co-ordinator
From my own perspective, this is without a doubt one of the most amazing trips anyone could undertake on this planet, a truly memorable and awe inspiring journey into a land of wilderness, abundance, diversity and beauty. I hope to return soon!
With thanks to other contributors:
Chris Wilson, Andrew Suggitt, Suzanna Jerrard.