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About Author: Jessica Groenendijk

Posts by Jessica Groenendijk

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Welcoming Students to Cocha Cashu

Matsigenka schoolchildren pose for a group photo at the end of their adventure at Cocha Cashu.

Matsigenka schoolchildren pose for a group photo at the end of their adventure at Cocha Cashu.

We can hear the Matsigenka schoolchildren chattering over the hum of the outboard (it’s amazing how sound carries over water), but they fall silent as they approach the beach that represents our port. Unlike researchers, who typically spend 10 minutes tidying their gear and putting on rubber boots before disembarking clumsily, the kids jump out of the boat without fuss. They are shy as Cesar Flores, director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru, comes forward to greet them. They have never been to Cocha Cashu before, although their neighboring community, Maisal, is just an hour or so upriver. Their teacher, Miluska, shakes Cesar’s hand and smiles warmly. Together, they walk the 550-yard (500 meters) trail through the rain forest to the station.

In our discussions with local people, we have noticed repeatedly a sense of bafflement about what we do at Cocha Cashu. People see us come and go, but there is very little connection, if any, between the researchers and staff who spend weeks or months at the station and the people who live in the communities in and around Manu. There is also little contact between the researchers and the Park authorities. We would like to change all this by making Cocha Cashu more accessible to local inhabitants, to increase the transparency of our activities and research, to share research findings openly with Park staff, and to enhance communication and interaction on all levels and with all community members. In short, we plan to integrate Cocha Cashu into the local and wider community.

Cocha Cashu director Cesar leads a lesson in the Station's library.

Cocha Cashu director Cesar leads a lesson in the Station’s library.

This process is not as simple as it sounds and will take some time to complete. We have begun exploring various avenues and ideas and will continue to do so in the coming year. As a first step, and at the request of Miluska, in October 2012 we invited 15 primary grade schoolchildren in Maisal to spend a weekend at the station.

Over the next two days, Cesar and Fortunato (our boat driver and photographer) introduced the children to life and research at Cocha Cashu. The kids were shown around the main buildings and given a presentation after lunch to enhance their understanding of Cashu’s role in Manu, beginning with the origins of the station and ending with our hopes and objectives for the future. This was followed by an excursion into the forest to explain a number of ongoing, long-term research projects, and they had the opportunity to count and measure some trees in a few little plots to experience how scientists evaluate the forest.

A refreshing swim in the lake!

A refreshing swim in the lake!

They also received a lesson about the mechanism of Cashu’s power supply, examined water quality, and, during a short discussion session, the children in turn showed us that they have a great understanding of the natural history of aquatic systems. There was also plenty of time for fun, not least a swim in the lake! Little by little, the kids lost their awe and entered into the spirit of Cocha Cashu. For us, the broad grins in the group photo, taken toward the end of their visit, say it all.

Jessica Groenendijk is the education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. Read her previous post, Homecoming in Cocha Cashu.

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Homecoming in Cocha Cashu

This is Theo (or Thea?), a young otter born last year in Cocha Cashu. The giant otter habit of periscoping allows us to document their unique throat patterns.

The howler monkeys wake me up before my alarm clock does. For a moment, I’m disorientated. Oh, right, I’m in Cocha Cashu in Peru. As I dress, I try to decide how I would describe the howlers’ epic serenade to my kids. Like a train roaring through a tunnel? A powerful wind rushing through the tree canopy? Awesome in the true sense of the word?

The day is just beginning when I meet Russ at the lake. We collect our gear and gingerly step into the wooden canoe. It sits low in the water. Any sudden movement risks an early bath. The trick is to smoothly fold yourself into a cross-legged position on the bottom. We eventually manage this (not so smoothly), and gently push ourselves off. The canoe, shaped like a hollowed-out needle, slides soundlessly from the shore. Sitting in the stern, I grip my crudely carved paddle and push against the water, accidentally knocking against the boat and causing Russ to clutch the sides. But soon I fall into a rhythm, five strokes to starboard, five to port, and the canoe stabilizes. We relax. The paling sky, the murmur of our passage, the darkly sleeping forest, it all seems so familiar. It is as though I’ve never been away.

A juvenile striated heron pretends to be invisible as we approach.

Almost immediately, we glide past a tree in which white-fronted capuchins are feeding. There is still not enough light for photography, so I take pleasure in simply watching. Russ does not speak, for which I am grateful. The beauty around us is enough. We slowly drift on. Howlers on one shore of the lake begin their unearthly concert, and a group on the opposite shore answers. The forest is quickening. Far off, I hear the soulful hiccupping of crying babies; correction, dusky titi monkeys. A hoatzin shuffles in overhanging branches, rasping softly. Sunlight now gilds the trees, and their leaves turn a luminous green. A striated heron stands frozen at the edge of a patch of floating grass. I touch the water with my paddle, and the canoe whispers forward. Russ and I take photos of the heron until, losing heart, it flies off.

Then I hear them. I hold my breath. Yes, there it is again. Unmistakable. Now I’m tense with anticipation. I know what to look for and scan the water’s surface ahead. It reflects the tree line perfectly, such is its stillness. But at the grass edge to the left I see it distort and shimmer. Then I hear a sharp exhalation, and a wave bulges toward us. They’re chasing fish. Russ and I see the small head simultaneously. Two. No, three giant otters! I reach for my camera and wait. Sure enough, they soon spot us and head directly toward us. As they come closer, they begin to zigzag, studying us from all angles. One exhales explosively and ducks under. Another propels its upper quarters straight out of the water—periscopes—and I quickly take a photo of its throat pattern. To my delight, I recognize this male. I knew him as a demanding cub in 2002, in nearby Cocha Salvador, Manu National Park’s best-known oxbow lake. I named him Diablito—Little Devil. Now, a decade later, we meet again.

The third otter also snorts loudly and periscopes. This individual was born in Cocha Cashu in 2009 and is Diablito’s daughter or son. Soon I have the throat patterns of all three. Gently, quietly, I paddle backward, letting the otters know that we mean no harm. The important business of hunting soon distracts them, and they continue foraging along the grassy shore.
I take a deep breath. I love seeing giant otters, the subject of seven years of conservation work, but actually recognizing an individual from my former life is thrilling. And I’m happy that the lake still harbors a resident giant otter group as it has done for as long as research has been carried out at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station.

As we make our way back to the station, a pair of macaws flies overhead and a cormorant croaks rudely. My paddle dips into a large clump of fat, squirming tadpoles. They fan out, bobbling the water surface. The lake is humming with life, including biting beasties. I’ve been so caught up with the otters that only now do I feel the burning itch of several bites on my arms and neck. But it’s not worth stopping for repellent—our breakfast is calling us.
The canoe nudges the station’s jetty, and Russ pulls us along it. He climbs out, stretches, and turns to face me. “That was wonderful. Thank you,” he says. Pleased, I beam at him. As he walks off for his coffee, I take a last, long look across the lake and sigh contentedly. I’ve come home.

Jessica Groenendijk is an education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru.