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Hands-on Amazon adventure

A father and daughter travel to the Peruvian jungle for a firsthand look at -- and a better appreciation of -- life in an endangered area.

March 14, 2004|Dean R. Owen | Special to The Times

Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, Peru — It is just a few minutes past 6 a.m., and the shiny black waters of the Pacaya River mirror the bright sun and a few white clouds passing slowly across the sky. By noon the air will be stifling, the humidity inching toward 100%.

Juan Tejada, a 37-year-old native of the Peruvian Amazon, sits in the front section of our open motorboat. His eyes scour the tops of trees along the river and penetrate deep into the dense rain forest. His Cal Berkeley baseball cap is turned around so he can retrieve in an instant the powerful binoculars he wears constantly around his neck, although they seem redundant to his sharp eyesight.

Tejada suddenly tells the motorman piloting the boat to stop and turn off the engine.

"Look, look," Tejada whispers to Embry, my 12-year-old daughter, and to me. "Up there near the top of that dead tree on the left at about 1 o'clock. Two hoatzins. Oh my gosh."

About 30 yards away, two prehistoric-looking birds, one of the strangest of the more than 300 species of birds in the Amazon, are perched just a few inches apart on a crooked branch. The birds' red-orange plumes stand almost straight up from their heads. They remain for about five minutes, long enough for me to take a few photographs, then fly awkwardly to another tree just a few yards away.

Tejada offers enthusiastic high-fives. "Look at that.... What a find!" he says. "And only 10 minutes into our day."

This is Day 2 of a three-day excursion into what many claim is one of the few areas of pristine tropical rain forest left in the Amazon. The reserve (pronounced "Pic-KAYA-Sum-EAR-ee-ahh") totals more than 11,000 square miles, nearly three times the size of Los Angeles County. Guests pay about $34 each for permission to enter the reserve for up to seven days. Tejada and three other staff members from Amazon Yarapa River Lodge, a local rain forest hotel, have traveled with us six hours by boat to enhance the "Amazon experience" for Embry and me.

Locals tout the reserve as one of only a handful of places left where visitors staying a few days can see dozens of breeds of birds, along with numerous monkeys, pink dolphins, sloths, alligator-like caimans and other animals identified with the Amazon. Other more exotic animals, such as tapirs and jaguars, are more difficult to view in the wild, says Tejada, who, in 18 years as a naturalist and tour guide, has observed jaguars only three times and has never spotted a tapir.

Wildlife reserve

The reserve is bordered by two large rivers, the Maranon ("mar-a-NYON") and the Ucayali ("OO-kay-alley"), whose confluence marks the beginning of what is considered the Amazon River. Park officials estimate that 70,000 people live in the reserve, mostly in villages along the banks of the two main rivers. Within the reserve, there are a reported 132 species of reptiles, 13 species of primates and more than 250 types of birds, including the rare harpy eagle, a large, fast and powerful bird of prey.

The protection of the reserve is the responsibility of about 20 salaried park rangers and 300 to 500 volunteers. Despite government protection, the reserve is threatened by a host of human predators, including wildlife poachers, illegal fishers and timber and oil speculators. Park officials attribute these threats to the reserve's remote location, the inadequate number of rangers and the economic pressures typical of a developing country. The reserve operates on funds from the state of Loreto, and its annual budget has been cut 80% the last three years to $10,000, said Javier del Aguila Chavez, the reserve's director. Each of the 20 or so rangers is responsible for his own equipment, such as machetes, mud boots and flashlights. As a result, park officials encourage donations of funds or equipment and have initiated partnerships with environmental groups and operators of private lodges to help protect the reserve's ecosystem.

It was Embry's longtime fascination with toucans that led to our seeing the Imax movie "Amazon" on her 11th birthday in January 2002. As we left the theater, her plea, "I want to go to the Amazon," prompted me to challenge her: "You raise $500 toward the costs, and I'll pay the rest." One year later, after untold hours of baby-sitting, pet-sitting and house-sitting, along with a few birthday checks, she had the money. I began three months of research into the best and safest way to see toucans and other animals in the Amazon wild.

My research led me to a Peru expert in Virginia with the Nature Conservancy who suggested I consider exploring the reserve and use the Amazon Yarapa River Lodge as the base. The reserve is remote, but the staff at the lodge, where he had hosted conferences, would ensure Embry and I would be comfortable and safe.

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