Manu National Park: Worth the Bites

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Bathing with piranhas, Alan Lieberman, left, and I brave the waters to clean off at the end of a hot day.

In Cocha Cashu, sometimes you focus on the bad: the oppressive heat, the mosquitoes, the lurking fear of the unknown. We were welcomed to Estación Biológica Cocha Cashu (EBCC) with record-breaking heat (see previous post, A Walk in the Woods with John Terborgh). The mercury soared to 96 degrees Fahrenheit (36 degrees Celsius) on our second day. That may not sound that hot, but put yourself in a terrarium at 90 plus and you’ll know what I mean.

Here, even the palm trees can bite. Dr. Lisa Davenport and Robyn Appleton work to remove palm spines from my scalp.

In the Manu National Park, Peru, you sweat. You sweat when you walk, you sweat when you hold up your binoculars, you sweat when you eat. Worst of all, you sweat when you sleep. All exposed flesh is bitten, first by sand flies along the river, then by mosquitoes in the forest. Actually, once you get there, the forest is surprisingly not so bad, until you go for a swim in the lake. Little fish nibble at you, sometimes drawing blood, and piranha lurk underneath so you never know when a piece of toe or finger might suddenly disappear. Scorpions and ants can deliver painful stings. If you are unfortunate enough to get bitten by a fer de lance (an incredibly deadly snake) you may end up bleeding from your eyes as you die. If bitten by a bushmaster, you would be lucky to survive the hour.

Creature comfort. At the end of the day we return to the lovely little station that overlooks a peaceful Amazonian oxbow lake.

But although such incidents can be painful or even deadly, the risks are statistically very low. You are probably placing yourself at a greater risk when you commute to work on the highway than if you walked through the jungle. The crucial difference in the risks lies in the distance to medical care: it is a three-day journey from the field station to access a quality hospital.

Who's watching who? This spider monkey swung down out of its fig cathedral to check us out.

These creature-related discomforts, however, are juxtaposed with some of the best nature experiences on the planet. One minute I am sweating and scratching and watching my step through the forest and the next I am standing under a cathedral-like fig tree staring at a group of spider monkeys staring back at me. The tree alone is awe-inspiring. Its huge branches, of trunk-like dimensions, spread out in all directions, buttressed by the aerial roots that plummet to the ground like stalactites.

The squirrel monkeys above me are truly amazing creatures, moving through the branches with acrobatic ease, and curious, too! Several come down just above our heads, dangling by their tails, peering at us with large, inquisitive eyes. We, the people and the monkeys, co-experience this human-animal interaction, but caught in the moment, I envision a life among the monkeys. What a shame that people have hunted this peaceful animal out of existence in so many Amazonian forests. Can we possibly get a little more of this wild nature back?

Ron Swaisgood is director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.