San Francisco to Miami, Miami to Caracas, Caracas to Puerto Ordaz, a cramped four-hour taxi ride, and then up a major Orinoco tributary stretching towards the ancient mountains of the Guiana Shield…
As a professional birding guide and naturalist, my field work routinely takes me to remote ecotourism resorts and biological field stations that act as bases for birders and adventurers in tropical Latin America. This trip to the Caura River Basin, however, would take me a step beyond your average ecotourist adventure package.
Organized in partnership with Caura Futures, this journey would take me to a massive, roadless, and virtually untapped expanse of wilderness to experience traditional life with the Ye’kwana and Sanema peoples. As with many indigenous societies, globalization and modernization threatens to engulf their cultures and contributes to the erosion of their traditional bases of knowledge. While these indigenous peoples have traditionally lived in balance with nature, modern development has lead to poverty, disease, economic pressures, and cultural fragmentation. These factors often foster unsustainable practices that exploit the rainforest as a source of quick cash.
Curiara in the Tabaro River. Photo by Kike Arnal
Take, for example, the traditional method of harvesting fruit from trees. Men employed a loop of vine or bark placed around their feet, which they would use to tightly grip the tree trunk. The friction between the loop and the tree bark would enable the climber to ratchet his way up the tree trunk, often climbing as high as 20 meters. But in recent years, young men of the Caura increasingly seem to believe that displays of force hold more prestige and thus now prefer to chop down trees for their fruit rather than climb them. Through the introduction of modern safety techniques, simple equipment, climbing workshops and competitions, Caura Futures is encouraging a return to the sustainable practice of fruit harvesting.
My role would be to help assess bird diversity in the region and catalogue native birds for Caura Futures’ Biodiversity Knowledge Project. This project aims to integrate modern scientific documentation with indigenous knowledge of the forest in a way that will preserve traditional methods of learning and strengthen the case for rainforest conservation. As Caura Futures’ ongoing challenge is to continually find modern solutions for sustainable development and cultural preservation, limited ecotourism will also provide a viable alternative to rainforest exploitation.
Camilo climbs a Ceje Palm. Photo by Kike Arnal
In a world of rapidly vanishing species, the Caura River Basin is one of the few places where a lucky visitor may spot a jaguar roaming along the riverbank, or the legendary harpy eagle perching in the canopy, unafraid of human intrusion. So the local stories said, and I dared to imagine so.
Further and further I had been traveling since midnight of the night before. We were now on the outskirts of a dusty frontier town. A double-striped thick-knee, Burhinus bistriatus, stood in the road a moment before flying off, the bird’s huge eyes piercing through the darkness. I soon passed out under a mosquito net in a Ye’kwana hammock, which was to serve as my bed for the next nine days. We arrived at the banks of the Caura, a tributary of the Orinoco River. Massive and life-giving, the Orinoco River is kind of like the Amazon’s little brother. With abundant fish, game and seasonally fruiting trees, for tens of thousands of people, many of them indigenous, the Orinoco is a way of life. The Caura is quite a bit smaller, and quickly more remote.In a dugout canoe loaded with seven people and supplies, we left shortly after first light. Fifteen hours of motoring upriver was broken into two days of travel.
The water ran deep and wide, the color of chocolate milk. Along the way, we passed sandbars covered with ibis, plovers and terns. The dry llanos - flat tropical grassland plains - immediately gave way to forest, where mighty trees reigned over rioting shrubs, palms and tangled vines ornamented with bursts of brightly colored leaves and flowers. Over time, the river became narrower, swifter, clearer. Further up we encountered boulders and the trees grew bigger. A family of giant river otters gorged on large fish, barely taking notice of us as we passed.
Rocks and rapids in the Tabaro river. Photo by Kike Arnal
Further upriver, we encountered rapids; beyond these rapids, the chocolate colored water became clear. We saw no more settlements, no more clearings… and no more trash. In this wild, untrammeled state, the river took on a whole new meaning. I looked to the back of the dugout to our boatman, the chief, with an expression of disbelief and awe. He smiled back with a look as if to say, “this is why we live here.” When we arrived at the village, everyone, it seemed, was there waiting for us on the bank. The Ye’kwana were wary at first of their new visitors, though less so than the Sanema, who were visiting from their more remote community. However, within minutes of our arrival, a herd of white-lipped peccaries arrived as well. The Ye’kwana invited me into the forest for the chase – and there’s no better ice-breaker than a rollicking hunt with the natives. We ducked through twisted vines, skirted around tree buttresses, ran over thorny brambles on the forest floor and trod on mounds of stinging ants. They carried bows but only I wore shoes.
During our time together walking the trails, birding, fishing and stalking animals, many of these indigenous people became my friends. I was to learn about their creation stories, how the world, the rivers and the Ye’kwana (“people of the river”) came to be. The visiting Sanema (“cousins” of the better-known Yanomami), traditionally from deep forest communities away from major rivers, spoke little, but were adept at calling birds and even more at home under the forest canopy than the Ye’kwana. I would marvel at their intimate knowledge of the forest and their ability to find food, shelter and medicine in this extreme tropical environment. With the people of the rainforest at my side daily, I, too, began to experience their heightened sense of natural awareness necessary for survival in this wild, untamed land.
Ye'kwanas fishing in the Tabaro River. Photo by Kike Arnal
Our days were full of activities characteristic of traditional indigenous life. We sought out birds like the white-plumed antbird, yellow-billed jacamar and red-fan parrot, observing over two hundred species in all. We caught fish to eat, and often the fish bit through our hooks to escape. There were the abundant piranha, beautiful peacock bass, massive spotted catfish called maracocha and dozens of species I cannot name.
While I was there, the villagers found and felled a massive tree that they had been searching out for years, in order to make a type of huge dugout that would carry villagers to town and take me back downriver. The men from both tribes worked together on either side of the tree, their axe blades in motion for over an hour. This tree was to fall in the indigenous way, through hard work and with meaning. As the men made the final chop, the tree creaked, strained and began to crack. As no one could predict exactly how it would fall, we scrambled out of the way like frantic ants. My jaw dropped and hands quivered with awe as the tree tore its way out of its place in the canopy. Once on the ground the chief walked to the fallen tree, machete in hand. Laying his palm on its trunk, he bowed his head in reverence for a moment before inspecting its mighty girth.
On our final day, before the morning chorus of howler monkeys and birds, an unfamiliar sound awoke me, its melodic rhythm pulling me from my hammock, enticing me from my dreamscape. An elder, face aglow in the firelight, sang in an elusive language, forgotten by much of the world. Yet the feeling it elicited was clear. This was the predawn chant, a prayer to appreciate the place, the coming day and all that it would bring. I clasped my hands and closed my eyes for a few moments, just listening into the darkness and feeling where I was.
Ye'kwana woman making a basket. Photo by Kike Arnal
That morning, we rose and moved quickly, as we were to travel by boat and then hike a nearby mountain with no name. From the river, where crystal-clear water flowed over massive moss-covered boulders, we journeyed deeper into the rainforest towards a mountain whose lush, green slopes rustled with the passing of a spider monkey troop and might just conceal the elusive cock-of-the-rock. I had never seen so many raptors anywhere else in the Neotropics.
But the highlight of this day was not our foray onto the remote slopes of the mountain with no name. As we returned, less than a minute from the village, we spotted something in the river. “Tigre, Tigre!” yelled the chief as our boat came up upon the swimming jaguar. A moment of great views and photo opportunities for all, followed immediately by the mission of shepherding the huge cat in the other direction, away from the village where children were playing. The visibly frightened animal turned upstream, fighting the current. Then the jaguar pulled its muscular haunches onto the steep muddy riverbank, where, in a matter of a few leaps, it launched itself into the veil of the forest and vanished.
Caura Futures is an NGO dedicated to the conservation of the Caura River Basin through the empowerment of the indigenous communities that live there. Caura Futures promotes low-impact trade, sustainable use of natural resources, and the use of technology for cultural preservation. These projects specifically benefit the Ye’kwana and Sanema tribes of the region. For more information, visit www.caura.org . To request information on future trips, contact: josiah (at) habitatpotential.com
Rosana's portrait. Photo by Kike Arnal
Photos courtesy of Kike Arnal. To see more of Kike Arnal's work, visit www.kikearnal.com