Life is pretty good when you wake up in a comfortable bed, fully refreshed and ready for the day. Then again, life is extra good when waking up to hear the lyrical sounds of birds, munching peccaries, howler monkeys and other amazing creatures across a rainforest canopy. In other words, one gets a new an appreciation of color when the surrounding hues are reflected in the rocks and a new appreciation of life when waking up with the rainforest.
A recent photography safari through Tambopata National Reserve in Peru marked my second visit to the Amazon and third visit to a rainforest ecosystem, which I must admit I love more each time I witness an ephemeral animal sighting or gain a greater understanding of the sometimes harsh, and other times remarkable, mysteries of the rainforest.
Upon arriving at Puerto Maldonado, I was greeted with the familiar warm, dirt scented and humid air that demarcates the Amazon from other ecosystems and was excited at the prospect of the more scientific safari I was about to embark on in this relatively undiscovered part of the Amazon.
Would we get a chance to see a wild jaguar attracted to the scent of Calvin Klein's Obsession cologne as the Wildlife Conservation Society has claimed? Would we see the recently discovered tiny spider that weaves a defensive web so lifelike, it is as though the spider is 15 times bigger than it is, or would we uncover a new species altogether?
The photography safari was led by Jeff Cremer whose most recent international acclaim includes his gigapixel photograph of Machu Picchu, PhD candidate entomologist Phil Torres whose credentials include leading a National Geographic Expedition trip as well as writing about butterfly habitats for Encyclopedia Britannica, and our local certified naturalist guide, Pedro, whose highly observant eyes made sure our cameras did not miss any wildlife.
After a leisurely and wildlife oriented motorized boat ride down the Rio Tambopata complete with a delicious, hot lunch served up in one of the ubiquitous and huge tree leaves in the area (rather than a non-eco box or paper bag), we arrived at Refugio Amazonas, a 32-room lodge that has partnered with local families, who sustainably harvest Brazil nuts from the surrounding rainforest, to ensure that they share in the benefits of ecotourism.
From the first moment of arriving, it's easy to notice that Refugio Amazonas has a comfortable main lodge with a full bar, family-style dining room, reading nooks, battery-charging station, yoga/massage area and long couches just perfect for catching up on the rainforest discoveries of the day. Almost immediately, an excited visitor was saying to us 'take a look at my photo of the jaguar we saw...yeah, we were riding along on the boat earlier and there is was...so awesome!' We may not have all known each other before, but we explorers were all easy friends eager to share our love of nature.
From the main lodge, there are four above-ground bridges that extend to the individual rooms. The standard rooms offer open-air rainforest views, full private bathrooms, hammocks, sitting areas furnished by local artisans, and very comfortable beds (with mosquito netting) while superior rooms also offer electricity and free WiFi Having had the privilege to also participate in the back-of-house tours, I can say without hesitation that these rainforest lodges are some of the best equipped and sustainable I've seen, including:
• communications powered by solar energy,
• safe exposure to a balanced rainforest ecosystem,
• maximized natural light,
• Brazil nut (or lemongrass) biodegradable soap and shampoo provided,
• use of biodegradable cleaning products,
• trash management separated into one of five categories: biodegradable, plastic, glass, paper, or metal,
• provided rubber boots to keep lodges clean, and
• naturalist-led kayaking, hiking and mountain biking adventures.
As lovely as the sustainable lodge and surroundings were, it was the wildlife that rendered this trip most memorable for me, such as seeing the capybara's strong paws up close (through the professional camera), the great black hawk amused by something in the water, the Cormorant figuring out its next move, the grand looking Orinoco Geese, the peccaries looking for grub, the smiling caiman, the little frog who patiently posed for his perfect shot, or the "24-caret" gold-colored frog who curiously looked into the camera before leaping away.
Wildlife is abundant in the Peruvian Amazon and Pedro, Jeff and Phil were eager to share their passions, knowledge and experiences. But, for all the photo opportunities that were near and around Refugio Amazonas, the science was centered at another remote lodge, the Tambopata Research Center (TRC).
The 18-room TRC, which is run as part lodge / part macaw conservation center, has been supporting research in this pristine part of Tambopata National Reserve / Bahajua-Sonene National Park for the last 20 years. TRC lodge sometimes sponsors local Peruvian scientists, but during our stay, I had a chance to talk with international macaw biologists and ecologists as well as graduate students from Texas A&M University (a sponsor of TRC) who were visiting TRC for their fieldwork.
There was exciting research all around, however our fieldwork was at hand. Two experiments were top of mind for Jeff and Phil. First, they endeavored to capture video footage of jaguars with the use of weatherized sensors, flashes and cameras. They had thought through the idea for months and great care was taken to set up the expensive equipment in a "high traffic" area. For eighteen hours, we anxiously awaited overnight back at TRC. Would we see an ocelot, puma, or even a jaguar?
Unfortunately, no one had noticed the numerous leaf-cutter anthills that were about 20 feet away from the cameras! Little did we know that during those eighteen hours, there was a fiesta of leaf-cutter ants chewing through anything and everything that was plastic or rubber on or around the equipment – and the only picture that was taken was that of a moth (who was probably thinking something offensive as it flew by the sensor and flash!)
While Jeff was thinking about his camera insurance coverage, we needed to press on to the second experiment which was to determine the effectiveness of Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men in attracting wild animals, specifically jaguars, in the Peruvian Amazon. Back in 2010, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) determined that this scent above all others was most effective in attracting certain species in and around the Maya temples of Guatemala. But would it work for Peru?
Over the course of a month, an outdoor camera was placed in full view of two socks – one carrying the Calvin Klein scent and the other "control" sock with no scent. After collecting and reviewing the month's video, it showed that while many wild animals had passed (peccaries, jaguars, etc.) none bothered to even notice the scent. So, two experiments gone awry, but such is the nature of science.
For me, a person who loves nature, the opportunity to combine a rainforest safari with photography and scientific discovery was a penultimate experience that I will treasure for years to come.