April 2022 As atrocities are revealed in Ukraine, the world is wondering what Putin’s armies want.
December 2015. I visit Ecuador, climbing Chimbarazo in the Andes, then heading to the jungles.
“There is another world,” says David, looking up, “So close, but always out of reach.”
He is not a preacher, he’s a wildlife guide. We are looking up at the jungle canopy and he’s listening carefully. “The frogs are spawning up there.”
I wait for more, but it doesn’t come. David is lost in wonder at the thought of frogs who live permanently 150 feet above ground, hopping along branches thick with fronds, ferns and flora, feeding on insects that are unknown to science. He points. “Look. That’s a many-banded aracari.” A small toucan with brilliant flashes of orange across its breast flies off and behind it is a tiny glint of metallic turquoise busily hopping along, pecking at the insects. “Blue dacnis.”
We move on, following an almost invisible trail. David does not waste effort staring upwards while he’s moving, instead operating almost totally on sound and smell. He lists the birds as he hears them: “Red-bellied macaw, gilded barbet, pied puffball, opal-crowned tanager…” And so on. There are almost 600 species of bird in Yasuni, a not inconsiderable slice of a world-wide total of around 11,000. A musty, fruity aroma tells David that wild pigs are close, but we don’t see them. Then he stops. There is a faint hissing noise, like a distant insect. “Golden-mantled tamarin.”
This is one of Yasuni’s rarities, a monkey worth chasing. We creep through a filigree of sunlight, filtered down through networks of hanging roots. I pause to photograph a bird sitting in a patch of light with a cricket in its beak. As we close in on the tamarin, time seems to slow down. I can hear my own breathing and every rustle of the dead leaves under my feet. David does not point, except with a vague movement of his chin. And there is the tamarin, clutching to a bare grey tree trunk and staring down at us with an expression that seems to say, “Should I be afraid of you?”
A few seconds pass, then the tamarin decides that, yes, he should be afraid, and is gone.
We head back to the village.
I’d arrived the day before at an ecolodge in Ecuador’s Yasuni national park, one of earth’s hot spots for biodiversity. David had picked me up from a town upriver, a settlement that gave little indication of its proximity to one of the planet’s natural paradises: great belching trucks wallowed through street puddles irridescent with petrol and a crashed aeroplane was the nightclub. David didn’t welcome my idea of paying it a visit. “Bad place.”
On the waterfront men were fiddling with engines, others stood around on greasy duckboards smoking. The black riverwater was lacquered with slippery rainbows of oil. We departed as quickly as possible, jetting downriver past oil storage installations and gas burn-off vents. Yasuni happens to sit on extensive oil fields and there is a struggle going on between the oil industry and the environment. Without oil, of course, I wouldn’t visit, wouldn’t be able to fly to Ecuador in the first place. Could the hydrocarbon industry somehow live alongside wildlife? David laughed at the idea and stopped at one place so I could see why. Empty Coke and beer cans were scattered around. No one came out to see who was visiting. The houses were dilapidated. Behind the village there was secondary forest and an abandoned cacao plantation. If there were benefits from the oil money, this place did not seem to have reaped them. “The engineers are all from outside,” David told me. “And they don’t like to be here. They drink a lot.”
Oil, it seems, comes with certain strings attached, like a vivacious party-loving friend who brings a little excitement, but also some dangerous acquaintances. And when the party is finished, there is a lot of mess and no one to clean up.
Thankfully we left the oil zone behind, but not the environmental dilemnas. David pointed out a lodge tucked into a lovely section of riverine jungle. “They started an eco-lodge, but it isn’t so good. Their community land is
backed by a huge palm oil plantation and they don’t get so much wildlife.”
The Napo River rises in the gorges of Cotopaxi, a 5,897m volcano. It then flows for over 1,000km before joining the Amazon near Iquitos in Brazil by which time it is about one hundred times the size of the River Thames at its mouth.
Gradually we begin to spot more and more birds as primary rainforest becomes predominant. After four hours we reach David’s village, and their eco-lodge where I sit, entranced, watching hummingbirds feed on the flowers.
Like oil slicks and petrol spills, hummingbirds are filled with irridescent rainbows of colour that only appear when tickled by sunlight, but that’s where the similarities end. If you want a miraculous symbol of what tropical South American jungle can offer, then look no further.
The facts are stupendous. Hummingbirds can fly at 60mph and withstand forces of up to 10G; when hovering, their hearts flutter at up to 1,000 beats per minute and their wings at 200; the smallest weighs the same as half a teaspoon of sugar and one, uniquely, has a beak longer than its own body. They have evolved a super-efficient figure-of-eight wingbeat that gives lift on both up and down strokes. It is also almost certain that there are undiscovered species, the most recent being the blue-throated hillstar, found in Ecuador in 2018. The country has 132 recorded species out of a world total of 320.
In the village’s cacao plantation, we spot more hummingbirds, plus two types of owl, a turquoise tanager and a green honeycreeper.
We stroll to the community hall where Jairo gives me an introduction to the place. “Our people came here 40 years ago, moving downriver to find land. We were subsistence hunters and fishers and we were getting pushed out from our place in the High Napo River area by new people.”
So that was your ancestral home?
“No. We are Kichwa speakers from the mountains. When the Spanish came, we lost our land there.”
I get sudden jolt of understanding. This is not a settlement with long roots; they are refugees, rolling down from the Andes into the Amazon basin, never able to rest long in one place. And that process had begun almost four centuries ago when Pizarro’s lieutenant, Sebastián de Belalcázar, invaded what is now Ecuador and, by a combination of military superiority and contagious diseases, blasted the Inca Empire apart.
Jairo was more interested in the recent history. “In the early 1990s oil companies came here wanting to drill on our land.” That aim, however, was thwarted by one man who got a job as a waiter in a tourist lodge. “He persuaded us that it was a way to save our lands, and make some money.”
The community opened a basic lodge in 1999 then added another two locations. By the time I visited in 2015 they had three lodges that could sleep 24 tourists. In economic terms, one third of the village’s 180 people were employed. The real test was giving up hunting, something that not everyone would do. Eventually two men were expelled and never returned.
Further downriver I visit another lodge by a side lagoon, this one bigger and smoother in its operation. Guided by Victor and Sixto we spot giant river otters, pygmy marmosets and wooly tarantulas. Taking canoes thorugh the side channels and lagoons by the river we see, fleetingly, the black-maned tamarin. Both men have an uncanny ability to mimic birds and animals.
It would be easy to assume their knowledge comes from generations of jungle living, but Victor tells me he is a Kichwa-speaker too. His grandparents were the first people here. I ask if I can meet the oldest person in the area, someone who came in that first group. He and Sixto discuss this at length, then decide that the only one left alive is an 85-year-old veteran who lives upriver.
When we arrive, the old man, Fernando, is squatting on the verandah of his wooden house that stands on stilts by the river. Fishing nets hang in the roof next to the hammocks. Wellington boots stand by the door. There are few possessions.
“When I was a child we always were moving down the river, looking for hunting and fishing,” he tells me. “We were three families who arrived here. It was a good time. Lots to hunt. We kept pigs and the jaguars would come for them. I killed a big one right here, out that window with a blowpipe and curare poison.”
“We had no money and nothing to sell, but the hunting was easy. Everything was good. Not like now. Now we drink the river and get sick. We had shamans and good dancing. Now the young are not interested in those things.”
I wondered where Fernando’s people had come from, and why they moved?
“Long ago we lived in the mountains, but the Spanish took our lands and we started moving.”
For all the talk of traditional hunts with blowpipes and shamans, he was the child of refugees too.
“There were people here before us,” Fernando says. “Ghost people. Huaorani.”
At this Victor shows surprise. “I didn’t know this. I thought it was uninhabited.”
Fernando shrugs. “We would see them in the distance sometimes. Naked, carrying spears. They did not speak like humans, but could make sounds like birds, monkeys and jaguars.” He chuckles as if remembering. “They were very dangerous.”
“They would not speak, only kill you.”
What happened to them?
He shakes his head. “They moved deeper into the jungle. We never see them now.”
Yasuni has two uncontacted tribes, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, both from the Huaorani ethnic group. They have been in retreat since the first missionaries arrived in the 1950s, followed by prospectors and pioneers. Now they stay in deep jungles away from the main river in an area known as the Intangible Zone established in 1990. In 2019, Ecuador’s president, Lenin Moreno, signed an order allowing drilling in the Zone’s buffer area, a decree still being fought by environmentalists. During the pandemic the campaigning website Mongabayreported that a road had been pushed to the edge of the buffer area and a new oil platform installed.
Back in the canoe, Victor and I escape into a tranquil side water of the river. He is quiet for a long time. I know from his reaction when talking to Fernando that he had never realised that his community had displaced another.
Eventually he says, “Since we stopped the hunting, we have so many more birds and animals. I think we are returning it to what it was before – when the Huaorani were here.” With men like him, I feel, the unstoppable upheaval of four centuries has a chance of ending, but the tourists do have to come.
Monkeys sit in the trees watching us pass. Victor points out a potoo, a strange bird that hides in plain sight, camouflaging itself as a dead tree stump. We drift right up to it, but it keeps perfectly still, convinced that its camouflage will not fail.
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There’s a superb new book, if you’re interested: Hummingbirds by Andy Swash and Glenn Bartley. After seeing the photos, I couldn’t bring myself to upload one of my inferior ones, but here’s the potoo…