By Oren and Brae:
Last time we were in Colombia, one thing we really desperately wanted to do was go to the Amazon rainforest, but because we were at school there just wasn’t time. It was about the only disappointing thing about our 3-month experience. So, as soon as we started talking about returning to Colombia this year, the first thing that popped into my head was ‘AMAZON’!
After three action-packed weeks in Colombia, it was hard to believe that we still had one more humungous adventure waiting for us. Our final week in Colombia would be spent in the southern region of Amazonas. As our plane touched down in the town of Leticia, we felt so overwhelmed that we were here at last. It felt surreal after reading so many stories set in the Amazon, and watching David Attenborough talking about the unique plant and animal species that live here. We felt like the luckiest boys in the world, and we weren’t disappointed. During our week in the Amazon, every day was jammed full of moments when we found ourselves open-mouthed with wonder.
It was impossible to know where to start when we sat down to write this blog so in the end we’re going to write some top 5s. Here is part 1: Top 5 animal encounters.
Number 1: Maikuchiga monkey reserve
In my opinion, visiting this monkey reserve was one of the best parts of the entire trip. Before we went to the Amazon, we had heard all about a place near Leticia called Monkey Island. Tourists can go there and when you arrive hundreds of monkeys climb all over you! You know how much I love monkeys, and the thought of getting so close to them was really tempting. But also we read that these monkeys might not have been treated that well, and they couldn’t escape from the island, so we decided we didn’t want to go there and support it. My Mum knew that was a hard decision for me so she continued to research and in the end she found out about a sanctuary further down the Amazon river that takes in injured monkeys and then releases them back into the wild. She tried for months to see if we could arrange to visit it to find out about the work they do and finally, a few days before our trip, the plans came together!
The sanctuary is run by the indigenous community of Mocagua, who are mostly Tikuna. When our boat arrived there (in the Amazon you get everywhere by boat, as there are hardly any roads), we were met by a guide who showed us the way through the jungle to reach the sanctuary. As we neared the small wooden building deep in the jungle where they do their work, we straight away looked up and saw a beautiful woolly monkey climbing in the branches above us. I love woolly monkeys especially because they look so graceful and intelligent, as well as being soooo cute and fluffy.
But the more we learned about the woolly monkey during the hours we spent at the sanctuary, the more I grew to love them! Although they had 4 different species of monkey there, the woolly monkey (which they refer to as ‘churuco’) is the main focus of the conservation work at the sanctuary. This is for several reasons. First, because woolly monkeys are particularly likely to be hunted for food because they provide a bigger meal than other monkeys. 😢 The indigenous communities have their own laws, and not the laws of the Colombian government, so even though the land where they live is a national park, they have the right to hunt animals to feed themselves. But because the woolly monkey was becoming an endangered species the local people decided themselves that they wanted to do their best to protect them. This means that in 2003-4 this community made their own law against hunting endangered monkeys, especially the woolly monkey. Thankfully this law has been stuck to and it is great to see that everyone in the community is respecting the wildlife. People who used to hunt monkeys now work at the sanctuary and they teach other people the importance of saving the woolly monkey. This has made them become known as ‘the community that protects its fauna’ and it is hoped that other communities will follow their example. Another reason that the sanctuary decided to protect the woolly monkeys that this species eats fruits whole and when they go through their stomachs the seeds are still intact. When they excrete them the seeds then grow into new trees which is great for the forest. A woolly monkey troop is much, much better than any reforestation programme.
One of the things the people told us was that their ultimate goal is to have no monkeys at the reserve! It seemed a bit confusing until they explained it. The monkeys that they take care of have either been injured or have been kept as pets by humans after being taken from their families in the jungle when they were babies. Also, if the police find a monkey being kept as a pet then they take it to the sanctuary to be looked after. It was really upsetting to think that only a few years ago they had 65 monkeys there because so many were kept as pets.😡 Now there are only 7, so it is so great to think that so many monkeys have been released back into the wild.
Before they are released, the monkeys are taken care of and taught to survive on a diet of things that they will be able to find for themselves in the jungle, rather than human food. While they are first in the sanctuary, they are still allowed human contact and one of the things I found most amazing is that the monkeys came and hugged you and used you as a climbing frame. As well as the woolly monkey, there was a noctural monkey, some squirrel monkeys and a capuchin monkey. It was an amazing experience for everyone, but especially for me to get so close to these magical creatures. One of the monkeys even went inside my t-shirt; then it wriggled around, trying to find an exit. I loved every second of it! I learned so much that afternoon, talking to the people who worked there, and I didn’t want to leave. I found out that they sometimes let volunteers work there for a few months so you can guess what I am planning now!
Number 2: Dolphins!
As you can imagine, when we came out of the monkey reserve all the kids were grinning from ear to ear thinking about the cute little monkeys. When we got to our boat we were just waiting to get on when Tom said ‘all we need to see now is some dolphins and then this day will be truly perfect’. Suddenly, one second later, Justine shouted “DOLPHINS, LOOK OVER THERE!”. It was such an incredible and hilarious moment. We waited a few more moments and then up popped two beautiful, little, grey river dolphins. We watched them for a few moments before the boat set off and the dolphins swam alongside.
Seeing the grey dolphins really did make the day perfect but to make our Amazon adventure complete, I still really wanted to see the pink river dolphin. This is one of my favourite animals and you can only see it in the Amazon. Our guide Nicolas said that we could try to see some pink dolphins in Lake Tarapoto. So, the next day we went there and the whole place was full of dolphins! Grey dolphins were popping up here, there and everywhere, including babies and groups. Suddenly, I saw a pink dolphin break the surface of the water about 20 meters to the left of the boat. It was then that I really noticed the difference between the two species. For example, the pink dolphin is much bigger but its dorsal fin is a lot shorter. They grey dolphin comes much higher out of the water than the pink ones, who just swim level with the surface for a while so we could see them clearly but the photos didn’t really come out. Also, the pink dolphin can move its head very flexibly so that means they can go in and out of tree roots to hunt fish that are hiding in there.
The dolphins are hunted by jaguars, caiman and anacondas but luckily they are not hunted by humans. This is because the indigenous people believe that dolphins are mythical creatures that swim in the water during the day and at night they can turn into humans, come out of the water, party all night and then take beautiful women back into the water to live with them as dolphins! I’m not sure I believe in this myth but if it helps the dolphins to be protected from human hunters then I think it’s a good thing.
Number 3: Leaf cutter ants
While we were in Colombia last time, we really enjoyed watching trails of leaf cutter ants weaving through the jungle, and this time was the same. This time though we found out many more facts about these ants. For example, they don’t actually eat the leaves that they collect, as we had assumed. In fact, they collect the pieces of leaf and then take them underground and leave them until they grow fungus. It is the fungus on the leaves that feeds their young. We had already noticed that they sometimes carry the leaves for hundreds of metres, but I have now learned that each piece of leaf can be 20 times their own body weight, which I think is incredible!
We were becoming quite used to seeing and admiring these ants, but one surprising thing that we observed near the banks of the Amazon river is that the ant colonies were building their nests in the tops of trees, instead of underground. This is because they know that the nests might get flooded on the forest floor by the Amazon river in times of lots of rain. I could watch the ant motorways along logs and the forest floor for hours. Take a look at one that we saw:
Number 4: The turtle and the butterfly
One night, we stayed in a beautiful nature reserve, and my Mum found a bench by the side of the lake where she could sit and watch the wildlife. There were dragonflies, herons and fish jumping out of the water. After a while, she noticed some turtles, sitting in the sun on branches sticking out of the water. As she watched, she saw a butterfly gently land on the turtle’s head. At first she thought it was just by chance but the turtle seemed to shake it off a few times and each time it just came back and landed on the turtle’s nose! Eventually, the turtle got so annoyed it jumped into the water and the butterfly flew off to find another turtle. My Mum thought this was a strange and wonderful moment and when she came back to meet us for lunch she told us about it. Everyone else agreed that this was a mysterious encounter, except Oren who didn’t find it mysterious. Oren reads LOTS of nature books and he immediately said that he’d read about turtles and butterflies before and that the butterfly was drinking the salt in the turtle’s tears! Since we’ve got back to England we have looked it up and realised that he was right. Butterflies, like many other animals, need the mineral sodium in their body to survive and that is why this particular type of butterfly finds it in the salt of turtle tears.
Number 5: CAIMAN!!
When we were at this same reserve, we stayed in rooms on stilts at the edge of the lake. We were told that lots of caiman lived in the lake and they could be up to 9 metres long. Think about that. We did, and when we could really imagine what 9 metres looks like we were pretty alarmed! At the edge of the water there was a platform with a sign telling you to wash your boots (people always wear wellies when walking in the jungle as it is very muddy and also the wellies protect you from the snakes). Below the sign for ‘boot wash’ there was another sign saying ‘beware caiman’! I didn’t really feel like washing my boots when I saw that and I definitely didn’t plan to go swimming.
Luckily though we soon discovered that there was an area in the lake where they had made a kind of safe swimming area. That afternoon, we were going for a swim when our guide shouted to us come and look at something. We ran over and there it was: gliding through the water with no effort at all. And it was coming towards us! We were led to a platform where we could watch safely and our guide explained that the caiman had been coming out in the day for a few weeks now (caiman usually hunt at night) and that they had been feeding it. It showed signs that it had been injured in a fight and it had a bend at the top of its tail, but it still swam effortlessly. The caiman swam round towards the live fish that our guide was dangling from a rod just a few feet away from me. As we saw it cut through the water towards us I was filled with awe of how graceful it was, and how enormous! As it reached us, it lunged at the fish and seeing a 4 metre caiman leaping out of the water is an amazing sight.