“The girls must be picky,” was Andy’s typically understated and laconic description of a rufous-crested coquette – a tiny bird, not dissimilar to a hummingbird, with the most flamboyant crest in a flaming red.
The coquette is so indicative of the bizarre beauty of Nature – sometimes there is no explaining Nature’s multi-faceted talent for the extraordinary – and there is certainly no shortage of the unexpected in the rainforests of Manu Biosphere in south-east Peru. The researchers and volunteers have the formidable task of trying to ascertain just how exceptional the diversity is and Andy Whitworth is the scientific coordinator.
My journey had begun a few days earlier, climbing out of the Sacred Valley, leaving behind steep hillsides defined by precise Inca terracing for a more pastoral way of life. Trees and shrubs give way to alpine grassland. There are few inhabitants and no agricultural plots. We approach the top of the 3,650-metre pass and are confronted by a billowing white cloud bank that tells us in no uncertain terms that we are about to head down the per humid eastern slope of the Andes.
It is a remarkable ecological transition from dusty and dry to dripping and wet in a mere several hundred metres. A normal day sees no sun as thick clouds bathe the slopes and an intermittent drizzle keeps the vegetation soaked in an enveloping Dickensian mist.
As we descend along a series of interminable switchbacks negotiating steeply plunging slopes, trees are cloaked in the thick wrappings of lichens, mosses, ferns and orchids. The cloud forest is a world unto itself, mysterious and intriguing, but almost unapproachable. As we walk along the road it is literally at our fingertips but entering it is not for the faint-hearted – it is a vertical landscape and one wrong foot would plunge you down the hillside into the spray of the streams and river trying to reach the plains in their turbulent haste.
I see capuchin monkeys and an agouti but birds are the real attraction – tanagers, hummingbirds and oropendolas – with the undisputed prize being the cock-of-the-rock. I am stunned by its iridescent flame orange plumage, it makes for a dazzling visual spectacle. The males gather in loose aggregations, known as leks, noisy hubs of activity as the males whine and call, bob up and down and fly from perch to perch.
We leave behind the confines of the canyon and enter a swampy plain where the soil is poor – millennia of rains have washed out all the fertility. The profusion of coca fields is a sad reflection that no other crop brings in a decent return. Half a kilo sells for about 8 Sol (approximately US$3). The unlikely proprietor of the farm that I stop alongside is Cesar, a charming, smiling 96 year old.
We arrive at Atalaya, a cluster of corrugated iron and the end of the road. It has that frontier feel to it, reminiscent of a Conradian trading post. I watch a nervous husband with two young daughters, wife and baby and wheelbarrow full of their worldly goods, pole slowly upriver. We head downstream enjoying the river to ourselves, the only traffic being the overhead flight of macaws, jays and parakeets.
Arriving at the Manu Learning Centre, I am taken for a walk around their bio-garden. Ronnie, one of the guides, explains with evident pride not just the success of this garden but the 50 gardens that they have been asked to set up in local communities by the Indians. I am shown around the medicinal garden and the bewildering array of uses of many of the plants: quinine is obvious, the cat’s claw prevents cancer, a palm tree used to treat rheumatism, red ginger is used for toothache, barbasco used as a repellent (and also for fishing by the locals – it suffocates the fish and they die). The astonishing thing is that scientists understand about 1% of the properties of the forest.
Outside in the forest itself, my learning continues. I discover a palm that walks, a fig tree that strangles and a fire ant which lives in a holly tree protecting it from mosses and lichens. I adore the most ancient of gardeners of the tropical forest and watch a colony of leaf-cutter ants slice off portions of a leaf and then patiently carry the leaf bits in a procession back to their underground nests.
The canopy is equally as stunning as the floor and I am lucky enough to be taken to climb a Capirona tree (which incidentally is not just a tree for climbing but one which sheds its bark several times a year to avoid being overtaken by parasites). The views are invigorating as I look out over mile upon mile of tree-tops broken only by the glittering coils of the Madre de Dios River in the distance. It was thrilling watching the profusion of butterflies, being eye to eye with birds and contemplating the life of a monkey.
Early the next morning, an explosion of colour erupts as a large group of Blue-headed and Chestnut fronted Macaws take to the air from the clay lick. The skies are not just alive with darting colour but constant sounds: the radio squawk of parakeets, the chatter of macaws, the guttural grunt of the prehistoric hoatzin.
With the notable exception of birds, I have not seen that much wildlife – the jungle is heard but unseen. However that has in no way diminished my experience having learned a huge amount about the symbiotic relationship of the forest, the need for balance, but above all about some of the smaller fauna. That is the joy of Manu Learning Centre and the unbridled enthusiasm of the team.
I came wanting to see Jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas which derives its name from the Indian word yaguar, meaning ‘he who kills at one leap’. Whilst I did not see one, my understanding of the rainforest has taken a big leap forward and I am all the richer for it.