Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cold Front Sweeps Across Peru

Written on 24 August 2011
I’m writing from Tarapoto, a city in central Peru. I’m here with a geologist, two anthropologists, and two geographers. We are supposed to be working with the inventory team as they come out of the field, and pulling together the recommendations for the conservation and management of this region. Instead we’ve been waiting anxiously for them for three days.

The team is stuck in Puerto Galilea, an indigenous community on the Santiago River.  A friaje, or cold front, swept through the country three days ago, producing big clouds that are now hanging over northern Peru. These clouds are low enough, and immobile enough, that they have grounded the helicopter.

Two of us were supposed to be there with the team. Dick Smith, an anthropologist from the Instituto del Bien Común (, and I got into a small plane on Sunday afternoon. Our flight was already terrifically delayed, but we thought we could fly from Tarapoto to Puerto Galilea, and we thought we could avoid the storm system.  We were wrong on both counts. 

Leaving Tarapoto and heading towards the mountains.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

We traveled with SAETA, one of the few companies that flies small planes into the Santiago drainage. Joining us on the flight were Mamerto Maicua and Luis Piyaba of CORPI (Coordinadora Regional de Pueblos Indígenas Región San Lorenzo), one of the two regional indigenous organizations near the Kampankis mountains. We left Tarapoto with decent visibility and crossed over the Cordillera Escalera.

We flew over the spectacular Cordillera Escelera, a place just
begging to be explored. Perhaps a future rapid inventory.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

Soon we were deep in the clouds. After about twenty minutes the rain started. All four us hoped that we would soon break free from the storm, and were expecting that any minute we’d emerge on the other side of the rain and the clouds. Instead, the rain intensified. The turbulence got worse. And after some seemingly eternal moments, we turned around. 

Mamerto Maicua looks out the window with apprehension.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

All of us were grateful to be back on the ground, and we spent the night in Yurimaguas, a sweet little town on the Huallaga River. The following day, Mamerto left for San Lorenzo, on the Maráñon River. Luis stayed in Yurimaguas. And Dick and I rode two hours back to Tarapoto. We crossed over the Cordillera Escalera again, this time in a car following a seemingly never-ending series of curves. The taxis pride themselves on speed. We prided ourselves on not getting sick during the trip. 

Crossing the Cordillera Escalera, this time by car.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

And now we’ve been in Tarapoto for two days. We are stuck in a loop: get up, check weather maps, call Debby and Tyana in Puerto Galilea, get hopes up, squint up at the sky and convince ourselves the clouds are moving, call Puerto Galilea again, and after a few more iterations, realize dejectedly that the helicopter cannot fly today and resign ourselves to one more day of the same process.

In the meanwhile, the inventory team has been incredibly productive during their unexpectedly long layover in Puerto Galilea. They met with the Awajún and Wampis to share their findings. They engaged everyone in the community in a discussion of their vision for the area in the long term. And together with the community, they spent hours thinking through the threats to the region, the strengths of the local people, and how to best use the strengths to address the threats. 

Here in Tarapoto, we are anxious to see the scientists, hear their stories, and move forward on writing the report. Spurred on by the team’s reports about their productive meetings with the community, we’ve made a series of new maps of the region’s geology. As we think about the Huancabamba deflection, the rise of the Andes, and the large paleolake known as Lago Pevas that is now the upper Amazon basin, we are—for a moment at least—pleasantly distracted. 

Then we look out the window and think that perhaps, just perhaps, today will be the day the clouds clear and the team flies over the mountains to us. For now, we wait. 

Update: The team has landed safely in Tarapoto (during an earthquake). 
After three days of waiting in Puerto Galilea, the team finally reaches Tarapoto.
An earthquake struck as they were landing, and people ran out of the airport into
the streets for safety. The team figured people were just really excited to see them.
Photo: A. del Campo
Post by Corine Vriesendorp, Conservation Ecologist

Friday, August 26, 2011

Birds: It's Almost All New

Written 20 August 2011

Three days before departing to this, my first inventory, Doug Stotz took me through the bird collection at the Field Museum to show me some of the species of special interest likely to occur in the Cerros Kampankis, an ornithologically unexplored region in northern Peru.

Doug opened one of the drawers with a series of antbird specimens.  He pointed out subtle differences among closely-related, hard-to-identify species and moved to another drawer.  “We expect to find this hummingbird,” he told me, pointing out a specimen almost identical to the rest.  “Also, this antpitta”… “this flycatcher”… “this hawk,” and continued showing me other species while I took notes as fast as possible.

Most of the species he pointed out that day are new for me.  The portion of the Neotropics that I have visited frequently, from southern Mexico to Panama, shares many of the families and genera that we would find in northern Peru, although South America has the world’s most diverse avifauna and each of these groups contains many more different species than the ones I am used to.

Facing such a complicated task, I opted for preparing for this trip as well as I could: I read as much of the field guide to the Birds of Peru (of which Doug is a coauthor) as possible, studying each illustration and distribution map.  I looked at the species lists of the most recent Rapid Inventory to have a clear idea of the number of birds registered at last year’s site and to get a sense of what was expected of my work in the field.  I pulled all the music off my iPod and replaced it with the content of several CDs with bird songs of the Amazonian and Andean regions of Peru.  For days I didn’t listen to anything but bird songs, including the cow-cow-cow of the familiar Collared Trogon and also learned for the first time the choo-choo-chuchuchu of the White-flanked Antwren and the cher-cher-chrrr, chrr of the Yellow-tufted Woodpecker that I never heard before.

And my first day in the field came.  The bird team is composed of Renzo Zeppilli,  Debby Moskovits, and me.  Both of them have lots of experience identifying Peruvian birds and they readily identify them left and right as we hear them in the forest.  “That is a Black-faced Antbird”… “That one is a Paradise Tanager”… “Oh, Plumbeous Pigeon, out there, in the distance.”  That morning each of them picked a different trail.  I picked my own and left camp with my backpack containing my digital sound recorder, my camera, and my field guide.  In my left pocket, my iPod with a small speaker.  In my right, my field notebook.  Hanging from my neck my binoculars.

Field Museum conservation ecologist Ernesto Ruelas reviewing recordings at 
Quebrada Katerpiza.  Rubber boots in European size 46 are hard to find in Tarapoto, 
and Smurf-colored ones may be your only choice.  
Photo: A. del Campo.

Ssscoooeee-cooeo!  I heard nearby, by the stream.  Loud, clear.  It sounded like “my” piha, the one I can find in the forests of southern Mexico.  I reached for my iPod and looked for a piha, I played the track, and immediately identified that bird that I could not see, but whose call is unmistakable.  A new species for me, one that has the (very appropriate) scientific name of Lipaugus vociferans.  I followed the trail, tzk-tzk-tzk, then cooe-cooe-cooe, etc.  I look at my iPod and found some of them easily identifiable, while some others were not.  I made recordings of those worthwhile documenting and of those that I didn’t know.  Within a few days I learned more and more vocalizations and made some mental calculations of how many I was able to actually see and how many I could only identify through their vocalizations.  Was it 80% by voice and 20% by sight?

Straight-billed Hermit photographed asleep.  Hummingbirds drop metabolic 
rates at night to save energy and stay warm positioning their feathers in a position 
perpendicular to their skin that allows them to immobilize air.  Approaching them at 
night to take a photograph becomes an easy task due to their state of torpor -- 
but finding them is not.
Photo: A. del Campo

Three camps afterwards (with many vocalizations identified positively and many others left unidentified), I feel familiar with the most common of what can be found at low elevations, approximately 1,000 feet.  Each member of the bird team has covered between 3-6 miles of trails per day recording birds.  We climbed three hilltops to elevations over 3,000 feet (two of them above 4,200 feet!) that brought us records of mountain species and additional findings for our inventory, including the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, considered by many the national bird of Peru.

 Every night we sat down together to review what each of us had found, shared the details of notable records, and compiled our data in a central list.  Days have gone by really fast.  My arms are covered in mosquito and bug bites and my feet almost used to wearing rubber boots.

Orange-throated Tanager, a coveted species for birdwatchers, rare record for 
ornithologists, andbird of cultural significance for the Wampis indigenous 
group, was recorded in two of our campson both slopes of the Cerros 
de Kampankis.
Photo: A. del Campo

Today we are in the last locality that we will visit, Camp 4, and our list has nearly 340 species.  I took a shorter than normal walk, since we need to start working on our reports and synthesizing information from the entire trip.  While I was reviewing the list, I confirmed many of the species expected for Kampankis and also tallied the many unexpected surprises.  Of the species of special interest, we found the hummingbird, the antpitta, and the flycatcher that Doug showed me a little over three weeks ago in Chicago; in my mind, I have fixed the voices of many, including the choo-choo-chuchuchu, tzk-tzk-tzk, and also the very interesting cow-cowcow, one of my favorite forest-falcons.

Peruvian ornithologist Renzo Zeppilli discusses the cultural significance of the bird 
inchituch (Wampis for Orange-throated Tanager) with local scientists at Camp 4 
in Quebrada Wee. 
Photo: Á. del Campo.

 Post by Ernesto Ruelas, Conservation Ornithologist

Saturday, August 20, 2011

This Is What It Sounds Like

Written 14 August 2011
Spend a day with us in Kampankis and here are some things you’re likely to hear:
The nighttime honking of the Trachycephalus tree frogs, which have been common around the first three of our campsites. For a long time they all sit quietly, and all you hear are the crickets and the river. Then one of them honks like a miniature duck, and another joins in, and another, until pretty soon there’s a whole flock of miniature ducks honking in the trees around camp. After a minute or so they feel they’ve had their say and fall silent again.

 The nighttime plucking of the camp guitar, which survived having a heavy sack of plantains thrown on top of it during the last helicopter transfer.

 On the steep trails, the friendly Wampis question “¿Te apoyo?” – which means “Can I help you with that?”

The friendly clinking of the aluminum poles that the botanists carry in the woods to reach specimens up in the midstory. Sometimes when I get separated from the others I stand still until somewhere off the woods I hear the clink saying: “Here we are!”

Heavy rain coming your way when it’s still a few minutes off and sounds like an advancing ocean.

The beep-beep-click of Alessandro’s camera as he and Pablo photograph the new lizard species over at the herp table – then Alessandro saying “Gaah!” when the lizard jumps off the table and tries to hide in the leaf litter again.

Alvaro yelling at Tyana over the radio, punctually every day at 7 AM and 7 PM. Tyana is handling logistics from the community of La Poza on the Santiago River, which is between 20 and 100 kilometers from our campsites. Reception on both sides is iffy, so the yelling is both an aid to communication and a symptom of frustration. Calls go like this:

Tyana: Alvaro, let me know if you want me to send more rice with the next helicopter.
Alvaro: Tyana, that would be perfect, thanks a lot, we’re a little low.
Tyana: Sorry, I didn’t catch that, can you repeat?
Tyana: Alvaro, did you copy about the rice?
Tyana: Alvaro, I’m sorry. I’m not copying you very well.
Some joker at the breakfast table: Alvaro, are you like this in the morning at home too?
Alvaro (grumbling): Tyana, Tyana, did you copy?
Tyana: Alvaro, Alvaro, did you copy?

The sound of the enclosed world you hear when the hood of your poncho is up and the rain is thrumming on it and you can see but you can’t hear the splashing of your boots through the puddles.
Whistling in the forest, whistling around camp. There’s the “Where’d you go?” whistle, the “I’m over here” whistle, the “I’m happy botanizing and I’ve composed this melodious little tune for the occasion” whistle, the “I’m supposed to be thinking about trees but I’ve got that Amy Winehouse line about Tanqueray stuck in my head” whistle, and the “I’ve been carrying a pack through heavy mud for a couple of hours but I want everyone to know it’s no big deal for me” whistle….
At night, the zipping-up of zippers, the rustling of nylon tents. Last night we laid out our sleeping bags on a bed of palm leaves under a plastic sheet. The ground there sloped a little, and in the night I kept waking up and wondering how far downhill I’d slid in my sleep. Then I’d hear the rustling of David’s sleeping bag to my left, or the rustling of Isau’s to my right, and I’d fall back asleep thinking that things couldn’t be too bad because the three of us were all in the same place.
The unbearable roar of the helicopter. Even with earplugs it finds a way in and makes your head throb. Once it’s left and the chopping fades into the distance you have to sit still for a few minutes, doing nothing at all, until you’ve regained your independence and can go about life again. (On the days we transfer from one camp to another, the Wampis guides always hear the helicopter approaching half a minute before the rest of the team, probably because they haven’t spent their lives listening to headphones and going to rock concerts and commuting through city traffic….)
The word increíble, repeatedly, at mealtime.
The tak-tak of Vladimir swinging the pick of his rock hammer at something from the Jurassic.
The shouting from one bank of the river to the other, when the current is swollen and the only bridge has washed away and the rushing whitecaps make communication impossible. Then you tap your wristwatch and shrug and hope the people on the other side of the river understand you mean that the only solution is to wait until the water goes down, because no one’s crazy enough to cross that.
Renzo back in camp, playing back a birdsong he’s recorded for Ernesto and Debby. One by one they hold the little recorder to their ears and assume a thoughtful expression.
The ping! ping! of a machete.
An argument about Chrysochlamys fruits among the painfully soft-spoken botany team.
The gallows humor of field biologists. Renzo says: “I have two pairs of pants. There’s the pair that’s wet, and there’s the pair I’m wearing. Which is wet.”
That funny grunting sound that hummingbirds make as their wings beat the air for a sudden change of direction. For a split second you think: “Peccary? Oh – hummingbird.”
The faint reminder of jetliners passing over so high that we have yet to see one. When I hear them I like to imagine a little girl looking out her window at the Kampankis range and saying “Cool…” – and then I remember that she’s probably saying “Cool” because she’s too busy with Angry Birds to look out the window and she just cleared that level with the treehouse and the boomeranging pelicans. (Or whatever they are. I just asked the ornithologists what kind of birds those are, and they said “Angry Birds? What’s that?”)
The almost audible crispening of the leaf litter and hiss of water evaporating on days when the sun comes out in full force after a rainstorm and the heliport is littered with a hundred pieces of drying field clothes.
The river next to camp, which sings all night: “I’m going to Brazil, I’m going to Brazil….”
Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rock Walls and Torrential Downpours

Written 14 August 2011
For the botanists on this expedition, the ridgetops and highest elevations are often the most interesting places to survey for plants, where the species are mostly different from those in the surrounding lowlands and we are most likely to find new species.  While our main objective is to characterize the vegetation of the Kampankis cordillera, I have a special interest in searching for plants that we have documented during the past 10 years from the sandstone plateaus in the Cordillera del Condor region of southeastern Ecuador and adjacent northern Peru. 
With these goals in mind, the four botanists, together with our local Wampis guide Ignacio Jempekit, set out for an overnight trip to the highest point of the trail network of our third camp.  This ridge at 1050 m elevation is lower than the high point of our second camp, 1360 m, where we found several plants that we believe are new to science and several species characteristic of the sandstone plateaus of the Cordillera del Condor.   We reached the end of the trail, 5.7 km from the main camp, by mid-day, but we were stymied by a solid rock wall 20 m tall that at first seemed impassable.  We eventually found a way up via a series of small ledges.  Although the rubber boots we use for jungle fieldwork are not ideal footgear for rock climbing, we managed to reach to nearly level ridge about the rock wall and make our bivouac camp.  We set out to explore the forest, which was clothed with a dense load of epiphytes, including much “Spanish moss”, Tillandsia usneoides and numerous orchids, bromeliads and ferns.
Botanist Isau Huamantupa at the base of the rock wall.
Photo: D. Neill
At the edge of the cliff we could see the broad Santiago River below, 20 km distant.  Numerous small trees and shrubs were in flower at the cliff edge, including several in the coffee family, Rubiaceae, and among these was a new species that we have previously found on the crystalline sandstone plateaus of the Cordillera del Condor, and is being published as Schizocalyx condoricus by Charlotte Taylor of the Missouri Botanical Garden.  We did not find, however, a great variety of the Cordillera del Condor plants that we had hoped to find.   The rocks of this part of the Cordillera Kampankis, according to the expedition’s geologist, Vladimir Zapata, are sandstone but contain some carbonate and organic matter, and are different from the crystalline sandstone of nearly pure quartzsite that are characteristic of the Cordillera del Condor and give rise to soils that are extremely low in nutrients and highly acidic.  The Cordillera del Condor flora that is adapted to these extremely unfavorable soil conditions, it appears, does not occur where the soils are somewhat richer and less acidic.
On our ridgetop botanical foray we did find two orchids that may be new species, a terrestrial Epistephium and an epiphytic Peristeria, documented by the collections and Isau Huamantupa’s photographs. 
Botanist Camilo Kajekai and guide Ignacio Jempekit waiting to cross the swollen river next to camp
Photo: D. Neill
As we started downhill to the main camp, we met the ornithologists on their way up to record the birds on the summit ridge.  In the late morning as we tramped down the mountain, a light drizzle quickly became a torrential downpour that lasted for two hours. When we arrived at the main camp shortly after noon, the small creek near camp had become a raging torrent of roiling brown waters and the log bridge that had been built across the stream had been washed out.  We could not reach camp across the swollen waters, but shouted to our colleagues on the other side.   There was nothing to do but wait until the flood receded enough for us to cross safely.  Eventually, a rope was thrown across the stream and secured to trees on either side, and after a wait of two more hours, we were able to cross using the safety rope and braving the now-reduced waters that still reached to our waists.  Soon the sun came out, and by evening the stream was back to its clear-running normal condition.
Post by David Neill, Conservation Botanist

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Big News from the Ridgetop

Written on 12 August 2011
We knew that something was going on with the herpetologists when the sun set on Wednesday and they still hadn’t gotten back to base camp. Pablo and Alessandro had started up the long, steep trail to the ridgetop at camp two on Tuesday afternoon, carrying their snake hooks and headlamps, with the plan of spending that night collecting and coming back down the next day. When they failed to show up, our first instinct was to worry. It was Lucía, who had overlapped with them up on the peak, who explained what had happened. 

“They didn’t come down because they’ve gone totally bananas,” she said. “They don’t ever want to come down – they say they’re finding incredible stuff up there….”
We had to wait 24 hours to find out how incredible that stuff really was. You have to wait one paragraph.
Herpetologist Pablo Venegas surveying reptile and amphibian communities on the high ridge above camp two.
Photo: A. del Campo

Alessandro Catenazzi and Pablo Venegas are part of a new generation of Peruvian herpetologists who’ve crisscrossed their country surveying amphibian and reptile communities, which are among the most diverse in the world – and vast stretches of which, like Kampankis, have never before been visited by biologists. Alessandro is a research associate at San Francisco State University and a lecturer at Gonzaga University – he’s squeezing this inventory between the summer and fall trimesters – and he’s working on the chytrid fungal infection that’s decimating amphibian communities in Peru and around the world. Pablo is a researcher at the Center for Ornithology and Biodiversity in Lima (, and is an expert on snakes and lizards – famous in our group for a photograph from a previous inventory that shows him holding by the tail a bushmaster longer than he is tall. Both Pablo and Alessandro have been on two or three earlier inventories, and in the field they’re all business. This morning the people camped out next to Alessandro were complaining because he finished his day at three in the morning to hike out and retrieve the automated frog song recorders from the trail system. You’ll recall that Alessandro is on vacation….
Los herpetólogos finally got back down to camp on Thursday afternoon – our last day at camp two. What had kept them so busy up on the ridge were 16 amphibians and four reptiles. Those numbers are not especially impressive for a two-day survey of an Amazonian site, until you take a look at the fine print. Of those 20 species, Pablo and Alessandro think that as many as 13 may be new to science, new to Peru, or significant extensions from their previous known ranges in Peru – and that’s two thirds of the ridge’s herpetofauna.
A snake in the genus Tropidophis, collected on the ridgetop above camp two.
Photo: A. Catenazzi

The reptilian novelties include a small yellow and black boa in a very rarely collected genus; the lizard Enyalioides rubrigularis, previously known only from southern Ecuador; and a fountain pen-sized lizard with a startling white throat and a tail that wraps around anything within reach, which the herpetologists say is like nothing they’ve ever seen. Turning up just one of these finds in an inventory would make any herpetologist’s day. Turning up three in the space of a few hours makes even a seasoned herpetologist’s head spin – and we haven’t even gotten to the amphibians yet.
The lizard Enyalioides rubrigularis, a new record for Peru.
Photo: A. del Campo

This apparently undescribed lizard was collected on the ridgetop at camp two.
Photo: A. Catenazzi

The amphibian news includes three apparently new species of Pristimantis, a genus of frogs whose juveniles skip the tadpole stage, emerging instead as tiny immature frogs from eggs that are cared for by their parents in the leaf litter; another frog species that’s never been seen before in Peru (possibly two of those); and three frog species that have never been seen before in this region of Peru.
And it just kept getting better – because what they were most excited about of all was something I haven’t even mentioned yet. Just below the ridgetop ran a stream that you could cross in one jump, and at night they found that stream dripping with glass frogs. They told me that there were so many glass frogs singing along the banks of that stream that after a while they gave up counting them, because the number showed no sign of tailing off. Glass frogs, or centrolenids, are the ones whose skin is typically so transparent that you can see right through to their internal organs. They’re one of the groups of frogs that are most sensitive to direct human impacts like deforestation, but they have also been vanishing from apparently pristine montane streams across the Neotropics due to the chytrid fungus. In recent years centrolenids have been disappearing so fast in the tropics that you hear herpetologists who are just out of college reminiscing about them like old men – telling stories about streams they know that used to be full of glass frogs but that are silent today.
This unidentified glassfrog was extremely common along the ridgetop above camp two
Photo: A. Catenazzi

On the day they got back from the ridge, both Pablo and Alessandro said the same thing about the glass frogs up there: “I’ve never seen so many of them in the same place before….” All the glass frogs they saw belonged to the same species, and the population was so dense that they’d sometimes find half a dozen frogs on a single shrub in the understory. That suggests that the things that are hammering amphibians in the rest of the world have yet to reach the isolated populations in the Kampankis.
The herpetologists could spend the rest of the trip kicked back and doing crossword puzzles in their tents, and they’d still have had a historic inventory – and have shown how special the Kampankis herpetofauna is. Every night after dinner, though, they suit up with backpacks and headlamps and snake hooks and slog off to work on the night shift, until midnight or one in the morning. As they’re leaving someone back at camp hums the song and someone else calls after them: “Frogbusters!!”

An aerial view of camp two and the ridgetop above it.
Photo: A. Catenazzi
 Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

Waiting for the Ichthyologists

Written on 10 August 2011
I’m sitting on a comfortable rock in the middle of a branch of the Caterpiza River. After yesterday’s long hike I thought I’d take a break from plants for a morning and tag along with the ichthyologists instead – but something is keeping them from our rendezvous. The stretch of river where I’m waiting for them is shaded by tall forest to either side and overhung with Heliconia and Piper and Inga and Ficus and Cecropia and Miconia and Carludovica and Pentagonia. The water is so transparent that the fish look as though they’re floating under a pane of glass, and if I had my binoculars it would be easier to study them than to watch birds up in the canopy. The ichthyologists are late, but the water feels nice on my bare feet. Every now and then a coppery crab comes sidling over and caresses my instep with his pincers.
A fossil bivalve overlooks an open stretch of the Caterpiza River near our  camp two.
Photo: A. del Campo
Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Don Gustavo and Don Camilo

Written on 9 August 2011

The rivers to either side of the Kampankis range have been inhabited for centuries by indigenous groups in the Jivaro linguistic family, mostly Wampis and Awajun. Today they live in dozens of small communities along the Santiago and Morona rivers – small meaning with typically fewer than 200 residents. Many basic goods are brought in from other areas of Peru – batteries, sugar, clothes – but the rest of Peru is a long ways off and accessible only by river and what satisfies a large portion of their daily needs is the forest. To cite just one of a hundred examples, the leaves of one of the palms that is common on the high ridge at camp two make especially resistant thatch roofs, which can reportedly keep out the rain for up to 20 years.
In the 19th century, a cartographer in a capital city somewhere drew the border between Ecuador and Peru in such a way that it split Wampis territory in two. For many years the line caused no one any problems, because outsiders hardly ever visited the area. Then, in the 1940s, Ecuador and Peru fought to a stalemate over this section of border, army bases were established on the Santiago River, and people could no longer travel freely as they had in the past. Parents and children, brothers and sisters were separated for about 40 years, which is how long the restrictions lasted. Today people on the Ecuadorean side prefer the name Shuar, while those on the Peruvian side prefer Wampis. Ecuador and Peru signed a peace treaty after fighting flared again in the late 1990s, and travel across the border is now common and easy. (One of the guides in camp, though, has a t-shirt that says “Never touch or play with landmines!”) Asked independently about the war that they were on opposite sides of not long ago, both Camilo and Gustavo hang their heads and say the same thing: “It was very ugly….”
I mention this history because apart from a biological inventory, this trip is also a family reunion. Camilo Kajekai, who’s one of four botanists on the team, is an Ecuadorean Shuar who was an adult before he ever met his uncles on this side of the border. He hasn’t come across any family yet on this trip, but it’s probably just a matter of time – the guides know one uncle. In addition to knowing all the plant names in Shuar, Camilo is expert in Linnaean taxonomy, having worked for several years in a Missouri Botanical Garden program with David. In the field he’s efficient and reserved, and now and then he gives us a quiet reminder of how much closer to home he is than the rest of us. The other day David and I were walking in front on the trail and Camilo was bringing up the rear. David and I slogged up a steep hill and then struggled sweatily down the other side, and at the base of the hill we found Camilo winking.
Botanist Camilo Kakejai pressing a Mabea at camp three
Foto: A. del Campo
The Wampis host we’ve spent the most time with in the field is Gustavo Huashica. Gustavo is about ten years older than Camilo – old enough to have several adult children. He lives in a community on the Rio Santiago named Soledad, which means something between solitude and loneliness in Spanish. (It got that name because it was founded by a rubber trader who lived there by himself for several years in the early 1900s. Now there are some 300 inhabitants.) On the trails Gustavo wears shorts and rubber boots and a Lionel Messi jersey; the first time I worked with him his machete had gone missing, so he wore a kitchen knife under his belt. He has an extraordinarily kind and trusting face, and he’s always interested in hearing what you’ve seen, or showing you something he’s seen, or explaining which plants are good to eat, or good to treat burns or snakebites with, or good to clean your underarms with (which might have been a gentle hint), and a hundred other bits of old, hard-won botanical knowledge that are gradually disappearing across the tropics.
Gustavo has never, as I understand it, been out of the Santiago and Morona watersheds – which means he’s never seen a city in his life. The cultural distance between him, Camilo, the other Wampis hosts and the rest of the team is vast, and the challenge of triangulating among those differences is sometimes overwhelming, but it’s understood that we’re all here to learn about the cordillera and we do our best with the short time we have together.
One night at the first camp, where we had been discussing this region’s complex geology, I remembered the story about the Inuits’ 50 different words for snow and asked Camilo how to say rock in Shuar. 

“There’s just one word,” he replied. 

“But what if it’s a white rock that’s really hard?” 

“Well, then we’d call it _____.” 

“Two! And what if it’s a river stone that you can break in half?” 

“Those we call _____.” 

“Three! And what if it’s the kind you use to sharpen your machete?” 

“That’s a _____.” 

“Four! And what if it’s one of those rocks you can use to make sparks to light a fire?” 

“Oh yeah – we call those _____.” 

“Five! And…” etc.
One day Gustavo showed me an herb he used to treat headaches. “You mash up the leaves, add a little water, and then smell it – no more headache….” An hour or so later he mentioned that he did, in fact, have a headache, and at the next stream he did just as he had described, except that at the end, instead of smelling the crushed-up plant, he snorted it energetically. 

“Ah,” I said. “You’ve got to do more than just smell it.” 

“That’s right,” said Gustavo, giving me his kind look, tapping his forehead. “You’ve got to get it all the way up here – next to your brain….” 

A few minutes later he said he felt better.
Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Up on the Ridgetop

Written on 8 August 2011
I’m writing this from a ridge at 1,350 meters elevation in the southern portion of the Kampankis range, more than a thousand meters above our second campsite. It’s five in the afternoon, the rain just ended, and a cold wind is blowing from the east. We have about an hour more of daylight, and then we’ll open up some cans of mackerel for dinner.
A view along the ridges of the Kampankis mountains.
Photo: D. Neill
We arrived at the second camp yesterday after a flight of about thirty minutes. The new camp sits above the Caterpiza River, a tributary of the Santiago that drains the western slopes of the Kampankis mountains. It’s a highway-sized river littered with boulders and broad enough that the helicopter set us down on one bank. We got in too late in the day to explore much around camp, but the botany team had already decided that if the weather was clear in the morning we’d try for the top of the ridge, because that’s where we’re most likely to find exposed limestone or sandstone formations, plants endemic to the Kampankis, and the everwet conditions where some of the world’s most diverse plant families – like orchids and aroids – thrive (and speciate).
The Wampis guides told us that the walk from camp to the ridgetop took them about three hours, so we decided it made sense to climb up as fast as we could, spend the night, and come back down the following day. The plan seemed like a good one, but it startled our Wampis hosts. Two weeks ago, when they were cutting the trail up to the ridgetop, they always returned to camp at the end of the day – even when that meant climbing down cliffsides on homemade ladders by flashlight. They preferred that to spending the night on the ridge, because the Wampis tell stories about mystical beings that inhabit the highest portions of the range. The stories vary regarding the extent to which the beings are benign or otherwise, factual or mythical, but they all give the clear impression that people aren’t entirely welcome up in that neighborhood.
The beings are said to send people warnings – sometimes in dreams and sometimes in the form of rainstorms – to keep away. Last night, as chance would have it, I did dream that someone was calling my name, but two things made it unlikely that it was the mystical beings. First, whoever was in the dream was pronouncing my name the same way I do, which is a very rare thing in South America. Second, that night I had happened to pitch my tent in the middle of the trail, where it was in everyone’s way, so it’s likely that someone wasn’t calling me in a dream but rather cursing me in the dark, because they’d walked past and tripped over my tent peg. Whatever the message meant, it didn’t seem like a very specific warning.
Isau Huamantupa and Camilo Kajekai collecting on the ridgetop near camp two.
Photo: D. Neill
So this morning all four botanists set out, accompanied by two Wampis guides: Agustín and Zaqueo. (I told Zaqueo I admired his name, and asked if it had a meaning in the Wampis language. He looked disappointed and replied: “It’s biblical.”) On the climb up Agustín cut some roots that he said gives hunters energy on long hikes. It’s a Piper that’s known to many groups in the upper Amazon because chewing its roots makes your tongue go numb. It did seem to boost my energy as we climbed, but mostly because as we got higher and higher the tingling in my tongue distracted me from the screaming in my legs and lungs.
We made it to the top around eleven thirty and immediately began to set up camp on a plateau just below the peak. It was a nice plateau with a spongy root mat over white sand soils, but a few minutes into the work we were swarmed by honeybees and abandoned the site in a hurry. We ended up along the ridgeline, where we had no sooner gotten up the tents that it began to rain and blow. This was a disappointment, because we’d hoped to collect all afternoon, but it was a modest disappointment, because by then we’d seen that the really interesting collections up there would have to wait until the morning.
The soil at the top of the ridge is a patchwork of brownish clay and white sand (not limestone as we had hoped), the forest is tall and stately (not stunted cloud forest like we expected), and most of the trees are species of large palms that are common along the base of the Andes and present back down at camp. Once the rain ended we wandered around without finding much in flower – although David spotted the gorgeous Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana), Peru’s national bird. I settled down to write in the clearing where the guides have strung up a tarp, and the guides built a sort of stockade out of palm fronds stuck in the ground to block the wind. The botany team was subdued, but Agustín seemed exhilarated.
“When’s the last time someone slept up here, Agustín?”
“Never! No one’s ever done it – we’re the first!”
It’s nearly eight by now and everyone has turned in for bed. At dinner we talked about the places we’d seen on the way up that we’ll focus on tomorrow as we work our way back down towards camp, after we’re done exploring the ridgetop in the morning. The wind has gotten stronger and colder and is making a rushing sound like a heavy sea, but the tree frogs are chorusing happily. And so to bed.

Not the ridgetop flora the botanists had hoped for, and no sandstone outcrops.
Photo: D. Neill
 Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

News from Camp One

Once the team moves from one site to another, everyone sits down and reviews the finds of the previous site. Its a way for everyone to share their discoveries and learn from one another. This post was written after the team moved on to camp two. 

An oxbow lake and the blackwaters of one of the tributaries of the Santiago River
Photo: A. del Campo

Written on 6 August 2011
If you had sat down for dinner under the smoky kerosene lamps tonight, here’s some of the news you might have overheard:
  • Renzo was bird-watching peacefully when a curious short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis) – the quintessentially elusive Amazonian carnivore – wandered over to have a look at him.
  • In the streams that drain the hills above camp Max and Roberto have turned up a couple of genera of catfish that are almost exclusively Andean.
Waterfall in the Kampankis mountains
Photo: A. del Campo

  • In a single eventful minute on the trails today, Isau spotted a black jaguar (Panthera onca), watched a river otter (Lontra longicaudis) eat a fish, and flushed a trumpeter (Psophia crepitans).
  • Roberto cut his knee (but not badly), our cook was stung by a scorpion (but shrugged it off), and Vladimir fell down a hill (and got seriously muddy).
  • Crossing a stream, Kacper and Gustavo were startled by an ornate hawk eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) that swooped by with a big ground bird in its talons.
  • Camilo heard two gunshots yesterday, which suggests that there’s a hunting party farther up the valley. Hunters on the Morona and Santiago rivers sometimes visit the Kampankis range in search of large birds, monkeys, deers, and peccaries, but the healthy populations of all those animals here suggest that hunting trips are few and far between.
A molting cicada
Photo: A. del Campo
  • The ornithologists have chalked up 18 range extensions – amazing but not unexpected, since range maps for birds tend to show a question mark hovering over this region of Peru.
  • A band of stinging ants has swarmed the plastic sheeting over the botany lab, from which they rain down on the botanists pressing plants below. Botanists are a patient race, and in the botany lab you hear muttered conversations like this:
Isau (scribbling a number on a sheet of newspaper, slapping at his neck): “Those ants – are they biting you?”
Camilo (tying up a stack of pressed plants, slapping his hand): “Yes.”
Isau (moving on to the next sheet): “They’re biting me too….”
  • The Peruvian ichthyologist and the Colombian geologist like to sing Cuban folksongs after dinner.
  • The botany team has collected and photographed about 350 different plant species in the first four days of work – essentially everything we’ve seen with flowers or fruit.
  • The herpetologists have found a bushmaster and are delighted.
  • Isau and Camilo have collected a bright red bromeliad inflorescence that’s bigger than a boombox.
  • The mosquitoes aren’t bad, but the ticks are fierce.

Looking west onto the Santiago River and the Reserva Comunal Tutanaim
Photo A. del Campo

Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

The Giant Blocks of Bath Pumice

Written 5 August 2011
During a long stretch of the flight into our first campsite, the helicopter flew parallel to and just west of the Kampankis range. Out the windows to the left was the broad floodplain of the Rio Santiago, and out the windows to the right was a cliff face of chalk-colored rock all overgrown with green. The edge of that same cliff is now only a couple of kilometers from camp, and on our first day in the field I asked David if the strong desire I felt to see what was growing on it was scientifically defensible or just boyish enthusiasm. In his mild way he replied: “I often find interesting things growing on the edges of cliffs.”
So on the first morning the entire botany team – Isau, Camilo, David and I – took up our collecting sacks and headed up the trail that led in that direction. Guillermo, who’d overseen the trail cutting, had warned us in Tarapoto that the trail didn’t make it all the way to the edge of the cliff but stopped a couple of hundred meters short. 

“Why’s that?” 

“Because giant blocks of bath pumice got in the way.” 

“Giant blocks of bath pumice?” 

“You know – the kind you scrape your feet with. We tried to get around them but we couldn’t. We had to give up….” 

Now there are plenty of things at the base of the Andes that can prevent a person on foot from getting from A to B: rivers, swamps, crevasses, stands of spiny bamboo…. But giant blocks of bath pumice? 

“Giant blocks of bath pumice?” 

“That’s what they look like,” said Guillermo. “But you can hardly walk on them. They’re sharp – they’ll cut up your boots – it’s ugly.” 

“And are there plants growing on them?” 

“Plants? You bet….”
So we went. From camp the trail climbed a ridge, descended to a stream, climbed another ridge, ran along the edge of a steep hillside where Camilo muttered “tapir track,” descended to another stream, climbed another ridge…. We went along filling our collecting sacks; the morning got warmer and the sacks got heavier. After a couple of kilometers the trail left off twisting and turning and headed uphill in a more businesslike way. We trudged up past a place where the trail passed over rocks riddled with fossils, then past a place where the forest looked perfectly normal except for the fact that all the thickest tree roots ran along the surface of the ground instead of underneath it, and finally we reached a spot where the trail made a sudden turn to the left because the way forward was obstructed by giant blocks of bath pumice.
The giant blocks of bath pumice.
Photo: D. Neill
Geologically-minded readers are going to have to gnash their teeth a while longer, until I can report what Vladimir, the geologist on the team, has to say about those craggy gray rocks. Our first impression was the same as Guillermo’s: it looked as if a piece of the moon had dropped into the Amazon, where it had shattered into a thousand blocks and been covered up again by forest. The rocks continued on the same uphill slant for as far as we could see, and something about the light far in the distance made it seem as though the escarpment was within reach. And so the boyish enthusiasm started saying: “Let’s go up and have a quick look. How hard can it be? It’ll just take a minute.”
The challenge facing the botany team.
Photo: D. Neill
The first three meters took a minute. On their upper surface the rocks are riddled with little pits about the diameter of a coin, and between the pits the rock that hasn’t been eaten away sticks up in jagged shards. You walk on top of these shards, which means that before every step you want to test your footing two or three times before shifting your weight, and you go forward expecting at every moment one of those sharp stone splinters to come through the sole of your boot and spoil your day. Every couple of steps you have to straddle one of the crevasses that gape between the blocks, and pretty soon, climbing upwards practically on all fours, you discover that the rocks can cut your hands too. In places the rocks are covered with roots, or herbs, or little mats of leaf litter, but mostly it’s the exposed gray rock, slanting upwards towards what now, upon reflection, seems like a very far-off cliff. Also – centipedes. During the first fifteen minutes on those rocks I found three species, one of them bright yellow and so thick that at first I thought it was a snake.
It reminded me of walking on a reef at low tide, on one of those afternoons when you’re wearing flipflops and the going underfoot is sharp but seeing what’s in those tidal pools up ahead is going to be worth a few cuts. So I made my way along those rocks thinking “I should probably head back now” and “I’ll go back in a second” and “I’m going back now” and “I’ll just have a look up here before going back” and “Hey, there’s a terrestrial orchid up here” and also “Centipedes!?” Now and then, spotting an interesting plant, I remembered what I was doing there. Then I’d double-check my footing so that I could reach out for the plant and make the collection, until I remembered that my collecting sack was back at the trail – ten meters away – an impossible distance. The next minute I’d feel one of those spiky rocks shifting under my feet and starting to tilt, I’d have to scramble onto another in a panic, and the specimen would disappear down one of the crevasses.
The rocks proved too much for the botanists on this day.
Photo: D. Neill
Reader, we retreated. Our sacks were already full from the hike and we had plenty of other material to press, so we climbed down from the rocks and headed back down to camp in the hot afternoon. That was yesterday. Today Vladimir has gone up that same trail with his rock hammer and his muriatic acid, and Alvaro and the guides are going to try to punch through a trail to the cliff, so stay tuned – we’re not done with those rocks just yet.
Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist