Read an Excerpt from "SUNKEN CITIES" :
The Amazon’s Pink Boto: The Dolphin That Would Be Man
It is late afternoon in the deepest reaches of the Peruvian Amazon and the Yacumama---the protective, anaconda-like river spirit that turns nasty when disturbed ---is asleep somewhere under my dugout. Stay sleeping, I tell it as I push my heart-shaped paddle down into the tea colored waters of the Rio Samiria. I'm not here to do your critters any harm. Never mind the four red-bellied piranha lying at my feet---I didn't catch them, Meneo the cabin boy did.
I have been here on El Delfen, a forever-listing tub of a river boat, for ten days now with American biologist Tamara McGuire, photographer Layne Kennedy and a small crew, headed upstream from Iquitos. We are well inside La Selva Profunda---the deep forest ---searching for the most endangered of all the cetaceans, the freshwater dolphin known as the boto.
Classified as Inia Geofrensis, it is a peculiar critter, a living ocean fossil with a pinkish cast to its skin, an odd, narrow beak, and a exhalation that can sound a bit like a human snore. It is also considered encantado, and its reputation for having powerful magic may have helped save it from extinction: A live boto can change at will into a seductive woman or man capable of bewitching humans of the opposite sex. A dead boto is miserable luck, maybe even fatal. Getting on the wrong side of a boto and its enchanted friends is not a very good idea.
Far less mystical are threats by poachers who covet this wilderness for any living thing in it that can be exchanged for money. Armed with machetes and a hard-edged rancor, they pose their own special risk.
So it is into this steamy equatorial world I have gone this afternoon, paddling away from our boat in my borrowed dugout, through the steep and mysterious corridors of vine-tangled green, past the colonies of spider monkeys and the gold-and-blue macaws soaring overhead in the faint gauzy jungle light. By now, a hull crack not quite sealed by the flattened sardine can tacked onto it has begun leaking several inches of river into the canoa, and the piranha are flopping back to life at my feet.
Just as I am wondering what is wrong with this picture, I hear a tumultuous splash a few yards away, a commotion that rocks my unsteady, hollow log of a craft. About 50 feet to my left, I see something large roil just under the surface of the black water and then charge towards me inside a giant V of a wake. Just as it reaches my dugout, it dives deep and under, jostling me precariously in the water and leaving a trail of bubbles on both sides like a giant perforated line, as if showing me where it could have gone.
Adrenaline surging, I put down my paddle and grasp the water-rotted gunnels of the dugout to steady it. Although my informed Western intellect explains this as a startled boto, the atavistic core of my deeper reptilian brain tell me it's a Yacumama, its pissed, and it wants its piranha back. Just as I am considering this, the primitive, angular back of a nine-foot-long pink boto rises up from the string of bubbles and tannin a few yards away and exhales a powerful whoooosh from its blow hole. Then, just as suddenly, its bright rosy color dissolves back down into the sepia abyss of water and magic and time.
There is something going on in this dark Amazon that is far beyond biology. In part, it is the tale of tropical, animistic myths that weave a thin line between the world of the real and the supernatural.
But more disturbingly, it is also the story of eco-mayhem---of vengeful and macabre murders of the sort that not even the Equatorial jungle, with its piranha and caimans and deadly fer de lance snakes, can wish on a human. It is the tragic drama of what can happen when the timeless morality of storytelling loses its power, and the simple greed of humans take its place.
Something is missing from my Aeroperu flight to Iquitos, and it finally occurs to me that it is Peruvians. Most aboard are either ecotourists ---earnest folks in earth colors and hiking boots---or soul-saving missionaries, many of whom seem lifted intact out of Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord. One of the leaders of the later contingent is a heavy man with a t-shirt reading: "Apostle Paul's Full Gospel Travel Service."
We skim the edge of the Andes, flying in the darkness above where streams and rivulets flow out of these mountains to create the genesis of the Amazon. Down we go to Iquitos, some 2300 miles from the river's mouth.
Soon, we are off the plane and into an al fresco terminal, the air close and thickly scented with citronella. Once outside, I run a gauntlet of frantic vendors and would-be porters who try to snatch my bag off my shoulder, climb aboard a taxi mini-van, and slide back my window for ventilation. Immediately, shards of the rainforest are pushed into my face---stunning blue morpho butterflies and tarantulas under glass, necklaces and headdresses of feathers and teeth, even a pelt of jaguar fur. Do-lars, everyone is yelling, do-lars. The theme for this place is quickly being established, and that theme is desperation.
A night of restless sleep in Iquitos finally takes me to where I need to be: Aboard El Delfen, a battered Fitzcarraldo-era river boat that will carry me far upstream into the jungle over the next two weeks, back into a pre-Ninetendo era of wood fires and yucca root, where river villagers have not yet been lured into the mutant Iquitos version of material exploitation.
Off we go from the shaky wooden dock, our engines clattering against a strong current in the clay-colored water, floating logs and debris pounding into our hull as dull thuds. We pass saw mills carving giant tropical hardwood trees into lumber, families hand-lining for fish from dugouts, an entire waterfront ghetto of thatched huts built on rafts, ready to float with the wet season flood.
After an hour of this, we are far enough upstream to be free of the city sprawl, out into the vast flood plain of a river that is just beginning to be fed by the impending rainy season. Low tropical savannas spread out from both sides of the boat, feral shrub and shoals and muddy banks that will soon be swamped when the Amazon---full with upland rain--rises a good 37 feet over the next few months. Great, water-rich cumulus billow around us, a hydrological cycle made vital by the world's largest rainforest.
Soon we pass the confluence where the Maranon and Ucayali surge together to create the Rio Amazonas, and our intrepid native captain---with no maps or GPS or radar---heads up the mainstem, the Rio Maranon, intuitively wrangling the ship's wooden wheel to keep us off the shallow bars. We are aiming for the isolated Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, a gigantic protected wetland the size of New Jersey where Peruvians are struggling to preserve the best of the Amazon, a refuge of primal 15th century wilderness in an ever-accelerating modern world.
The fine American poet Elizabeth Bishop first lured me here with The Riverman, a poem she wrote when she was living in South America years ago. Riverman captured the Amazonian lore of the boto, telling the story of how a villager is bewitched when a dolphin arises one night and grunts beneath his window. Enticed from his wife to dolphin cities beneath the water, he meets a tall beautiful river spirit, and falls under her spell, gradually becoming more boto than human. Finally, the Amazon's full utility becomes clear:
everything we need
can be obtained from the river
It drains the jungles; it draws
from trees and plants and rocks
from half around the world,
it draws from the very heart
of the earth, the remedy
of each of the diseases....
If this poem-myth stirred the romantic in me, it also touched the conservationist. This was not just a critter with magical powers, but a sort of natural guardian, one who protected the sustainability of the river by its enchantment.
Upstairs on the top deck, I hear biologist McGuire setting up her dolphin-watching paraphernalia, tin panels of the uneven decking booming like timpani with every move. With her are five sober Oceanic Society volunteers who are paying their own way to help with the research. Since both the photographer and I will also fill in as volunteers over the next two weeks, we leave our closet-sized cabins---cooled only by screen doors and tiny oscillating fans---and climb the steep metal stairway to see what our duties will be.
McGuire, on her 17th visit to this region, is a striking mix--at once tenacious and vulnerable, independent and vivacious. On solo trips, she has traveled by herself hundreds of miles upstream, hitching a ride on one of the river ferries, congested cattleboats where native passengers cook over charcoal fires on the decks and string hammocks in the sweltering holds to sleep. ("Compared to that, this is the QE II," she says of the austere El Delfen.) A doctorate candidate at Texas A & M, McGuire is also working with a local non-profit agency, Pro Naturaleza, on grassroots conservation programs in the river villages. Clearly, she is trying hard to reach far beyond the traditional role of the do-gooder gringo from the developed world to one who is willing to be changed by the transcendental knowledge of people and place. In a nutshell, it is what sets her apart from the missionaries who leave as rigid and unbending in their strident Western beliefs as they arrive.
McGuire studies both the boto and the tucuxi, a miniature bottlenose-like dolphin often found in boto territory. But, it is clear the boto is the most intriguing for her. "It's a fascinating animal---an oceanic relic" she says of the Inia. "They are plasticoides, more closely related to sperm whales than to marine dolphins." Although a specimen was first collected in 1790, the boto seems to have been left out of the loop of the trendy, modern field of marine mammal science. Found in murky waters in remote locales, research is difficult---indeed, most of what is known was just discovered over the last decade.
"With river dolphins, there's so few experts to tell you what to do," says McGuire. "It's basically: 'Here's the river, here's the dolphin, go do what you want.'" There are four other groups of fresh water dolphins around the world; while all are threatened by human impacts, the population here in the Amazon Basin is the most remote and thus, seems to be in the best shape.
Swift and far more social, the tucuxi (Sotalia Fluviatilis) could return to the ocean any time to hunt, says McGuire. But the story of the boto is far different---indeed, its prehistoric limitations first chased it from the sea into rivers around the world when the faster-moving dolphinoids evolved some 10 to 15 million years ago. Unable to compete for food with its more efficient oceanic cousins, the Boto learned to put its own peculiar body structure to good use in freshwater: Today, when the rainforest floods, the boto---with no fused vertebrae to keep it stiff ---weaves in and out of the drowned treetops, grabbing slower and larger fish in its long, teethy beak.
I contemplate this for a while, then suggest the boto may be to marine dolphins what the Neanderthal was to Homo Sapiens. McGuire agrees---but not before giving me a baleful you-just-kicked-my-puppy look.
By the time McGuire is done orienting us to field observation---recording weather and water conditions as well as dolphin behavior ---a bronze twilight has begun to infuse this Lost World around us. Unlike the downstream Amazon in Brazil where the river banks may be miles apart, here they are only several hundred feet wide, creating a feeling of intimacy with every leaf, branch, and lliana vine. This intimacy becomes more profound when our captain steers us out of the channel, noses the bow of El Delfen up into the jungle, ties up to a ceiba tree, and calls it a night.
On a battered wooden table in an open-air breezeway of a deck between the cabins and the bath stalls, we feast on a hearty meal of freshly-caught river catfish and yucca root and rice. It is a variation we will eat in one form or another for the next two weeks. At dinner, McGuire explains we will soon be entering the Reserve, and once there, we will check in at the first "ranger station." There, I will learn more about a giant endangered fish called a paiche, and how poachers ---angered by enforcement of laws to protect it---recently went on a grisly rampage.
By the time we finish our meal, the jungle is etched with fireflies and alive with unseen rustlings and gurglings. I sip a glass of masato, a mildly alcoholic drink made when village women chew and then spit yuca root into a wooden trough to ferment. Overhead, the sky is ablaze from end to end with constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. When I climb in my bunk, the last thing I hear before I fall asleep are the snorts of a boto, exhalations that later seem to speak to me from deep inside my own strange tropical dreams, near-hallucinogenic epics fueled by masato, and the strong anti-malaria drug Larium and the luxuriant expectation of what is to come.
Ranger Station Number One appears off our port bow in the morning mist, a ramshackle tin-roofed cabin perched up on stilts in a small clearing cut at the edge of the jungle. Guardaparques, paid about $100 US a month, grow their own crops in the clearing, raise chickens and catch fish so they'll have enough to eat. On the ground next to the station are several giant mahogany logs confiscated from timber-cutters who had intended to float them downstream to Iquitos. Rangers were trained and stations built with critical support from the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy. But the start-up funds are virtually gone, and the Peruvian government---which is in its own fiscal quagmire--- seems to be having trouble taking up the slack.
We are on the Rio Samiria now, and in contrast to the clay-colored, Andes-fed mainstem, the Samiria and its creeks flow out of local wetlands, creating tannic, tea-colored waters like those I have seen in swamps back in the Southeastern U.S.. The hothouse of biodiversity that spreads out around me is stunning: In the woods, 750 different types of trees have been identified in one hectare (2.4 acres). Throughout the entire river, some 3,000 species of fish exist --- many found no where else on earth.
As El Delfen crawls off upriver, photographer Kennedy, myself and Peruvian naturalist Beder Chavez remain behind with a small motor launch, planning to catch up later in the day. The meager Reserve staff, isolated out here at the edge of the world, welcome the chance to explain their dire plight. I notice the boto are literally swarming in the river next to the station, arching out of the blackwater in spectacular displays of pink.
Chavez is a naturalist and anthropologist who grew up in one of the Amazon villages, a former "ribereno" who now speaks five languages, paints, and writes poetry. As we walk into the cabin, Chavez casually points out fresh machete marks left from when the six poachers forced their way into the station, hacked one man to death, and then bound the other two and threw them into the river. Chavez shrugs, a typical Latin American gesture of fatalistic acceptance, and then we all sit in a large, shabby room, and listen to two rangers who are left tell the sad details of the story.
The poachers, they say, were angry after rangers confiscated illegal paiche, along with expensive nets used to catch the endangered fish. The paiche, after all, is highly prized for its sweet, white meat in restaurants back in Iquitos. But the slow-maturing nine-foot long adults are prime breeding stock; scarce elsewhere, the big, endemic fish has sought refuge in the Reserve. And while villagers---most of whom live on rivers at the edge of the protected area--- can take subsistence meat from its woods and waters, imperiled critters like jaguars, monkeys, and paiche are off limits.
Hamstrung by a Peruvian law that doesn't allow them to carry weapons to protect themselves, the defenseless parqueguardos were ambushed while they slept at night. The ringleader---who has threatened to return to finish his grisly business---is still at large. Local police, who promised to defend the station, never arrived. I notice little crosses tacked to the walls and doors to commemorate the deaths, and listen to the faint, haunting cry of howler monkeys from deep in forest. Later, Chavez tells me locals believe the station is possessed by restless souls of the murdered men.
I am relieved finally to get into our small launch, which we anchor in the Samiria just offshore from the station. The solitude seems to have appreciable weight, out here on this black Peruvian river enclosed by lush walls of vine-woven jungle, no noise but the exhalation of the dolphins and the odd call of the ovapendula bird, electronic droplets from somewhere in the canopy. For the next three hours, we sit and watch as the boto swim and snort around the boat, sounding deep in great splashes if they surface and find themselves too close.
It is a extraordinary display, made even more so whenever a pink-skinned dolphin raises his great primitive head from the water and looks directly at me. It is the singular glance of an animal alive when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I wonder finally how they must think of us, their new relatives---a species that would mortally wound its own kind over something as transitory and fleeting as a few dollars.
I am up to my neck in the Amazon, just in my swim suit now, and the tea-colored water in this tipishca ---oxbow lake---is so dark my lower body seems to dissolve into it. It is mid day, and, along with McGuire and Kennedy, I have leaped off the bottom deck of El Delfen to cool off from the oppressive Amazon heat. The bites I've been enduring from the plaque of mini-wasps that descend on us daily are soothed by the cool, deep river water. But the swiftness of the current---even here out of the mainstream---startles me. Before I took the dip, I asked Chavez what perils might await me. "Piranha. Anaconda. Caiman," he said, before breaking into a broad grin. "For the American mind they are great dangers---but only in your movies." I have seen the crew catching piranha over the last few days with cane poles---have even caught a few myself. So I know the muscular little fish sports a set of iron jaws bracketed with sharp, triangular teeth, of the sort that surely looks capable of stripping the flesh off a human leg in a few seconds.
Like sharks, their reputation is mostly the stuff of melodrama, though. "Piranha are opportunistic feeders," Chevez assures me. "Their teeth are useful for cracking into hard nuts and fruits that fall down into the flooded rainforest." Anyway, most of the fish stay up close next to the shore, rather than out here in the deeper waters.
After we climb out and towel off, McGuire tells me of another concern, a mythological one: "The crew has asked me, 'If you swim in the same water with the boto, won't they come and take you away?'"
Certainly, it is a valid question, especially for those who live on an isolated jungle river, where stories told over a smoke fire have not yet lost their magic to newspaper or television or shopping malls.
I learn more of this two days later, when we land at Enero de Veinte, a small village on the Yanayacu River. As we sit under an open thatched-frond hut at the edge of the steep mud bank, Chavez tells me more about the river dolphin myths he learned as a youngster. Around us, Cocamillo Indian children watch us with alert, almond shaped eyes. Nearby, I notice a ribereno has tied huge snail shells to the trunk of a lime tree in the belief it will help bear more fruit. At the water's edge, a young woman takes off her t-shirt and washes it along with other laundry, then lays it to dry on the banks.
"This was told to me by my grandmother," says Chavez, as preface: "'The young male dolphin comes out of the water at night and changes into a handsome man, wearing a white suit---with a hat to hide his blowhole....He comes into the village and picks the prettiest girl and dances with her, and she is bewitched---she must follow him.
And they go to the dolphin cities under the river, where the anacondas are the hammocks and walking catfish are the shoes and water snakes are belts. They have great parties, and when the girl returns, she is pregnant by the dolphin.'" In many villages even today, Chevez explains, babies believed to have such paternity are named 'Delfen"
I am back on the boat and it is groaning and clanking downstream, towards Iquitos, our journey's end. We have counted some 286 boto over the last two weeks and McGuire seems buoyed by this. But when I ask her about the stories of enchantment, she admits the younger villagers---as well as those who have been exposed to the tarnished glitz of Iquitos---are increasingly forsaking the legends that have kept the jungle hallowed for so long. The vengeful poachers are the most disturbing examples of this, she says. But, there are more furtive threats, like the fishermen who now poison the boto because it rips their nets to get the fish inside.
"The boto is a keystone species in many ways, both in science and myth," says McGuire. "Once its 'magic' is gone and the rainforest becomes less sacred, then only human laws are left to protect it." But such laws, in a poor country with dwindling funding for education or enforcement, have little clout.
It is enough to make me long for superstition, for a condition of jungle magic that is sustained---not by our vague human presumptions---but by our belief in the eternal power of serpent gods who lay sleeping under us in the cool and bewitching Amazon river mud.