How we treat the Amazon Forest; So goes our plight. This is an integrel part of a larger picture. Please read on.
A cursory glance around the jungle and it’s difficult to tell where you are — at least to my untrained eye. Costa Rica and the Amazon are the only points of reference I have, but to me, a rainforest in Costa Rica could just as easily be the Amazon. They’re green, they’re lush, their undergrowth is dense, they’re full of insects and frogs producing a cacophony of noises, and it seems they’re both full of the sounds of monkeys off in the distance — heard but not seen. However, when you step back from this close-up view, even I begin to notice the profound differences. The Costa Rican landscape inevitably begins to turn into a landscape dominated by banana plantations and other kinds of development. The Amazon on the other hand seems to continue regardless of your vantage point. There’s no shame in that for Costa Rica. It’s hard for any place to compare to the Amazon, particularly a small country like Costa Rica. If you look at the entire landmass of Costa Rica it is 131 times smaller than the jungle that makes up the Amazon. It is this type of comparison that is a testament to the size of the Amazon. Even though in 2010 it lost approximately 7 square miles of forest a day, it still contains areas where you have to travel for days to find major areas cleared of jungle.
There were two instances where the immensity of the Amazon really began to sink in. The first was on our flight into Iquitos, Peru. Iquitos is a proper city of over 400,000 people completely engulfed by the Amazon, and one of the largest cities in the world inaccessible by road — the only access is by plane or boat. Our first impression of the city came on our decent. The only thing in view was expanses of forest as far as the eye could see; only broken by sinuously braided tributaries of the Amazon River working their way through the deep green tapestry. As we started to get close enough to make out the details of individual trees still the only thing we could see was jungle. Abruptly, like some lost city, the airport and surrounding civilization emerged from the surrounding jungle. That the Amazon jungle could virtually swallow and hide a city of over 400,000 was a reminder of how big it really is. Even at its perimeter and along the edge of a major city the Amazon Basin is still green forest stretching into oblivion.
The second moment of realization about the expansive size of the Amazon came from the Amazon River. Our jungle adventure required a 3 hour boat ride — some 54 miles down the Amazon River from Iquitos — taking us to a rustic jungle lodge. We were astonished by the size of the Amazon River; even though we were 2,300 miles from its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean it was massive. We were visiting at the beginning of the rainy season, when the locals still considered it to be narrow. Yet there were portions on the river where the only thing you could see was water disappearing with the curvature of the earth. This phenomenon didn’t occur because the river was straight, but because it was so wide. Even so close to the headwaters of the river the twists and turns were swallowed up. It was hard to fathom the river would get significantly wider than what we saw, because if it hadn’t been flowing we would have mistaken it for a very large lake.
The vastness of the jungle and river was more remarkable than any of the species we encountered – and there were a few. While we didn’t come close to seeing the almost 1,500 species of birds, more than 300 species of mammals, and more than 500,000 species of insects and spiders that inhabit the Amazon, we saw just enough to wet our appetite. Perhaps most amazing was that the lodge and many of our jungle bushwhacks were through second growth forest. These second growth stands still possess an amazing amount of diversity with an abundance of more common species like giant millipedes, tarantulas, and blue morpho butterflies. However, counter intuitive as it may be, they also had a number of species that are more difficult to spot like the pygmy marmoset (the world’s smallest monkey), a sub-species of poison dart frog thought to only inhabit the drainage around the lodge, and the elusive two-toed sloth. Our visits to areas previously subjected to intense human use showed us that the Amazon rainforest is still incredibly resilient.
While we would have loved to see more virgin stands of rainforest there was only one area we visited that still had big old trees, massive ancients with their crowns disappearing into the canopy above. They hadn’t been cut down because of a collaboration between the lodge and the local community that lives close to the trees. The lodge pays the community to not cut down the trees and to prevent others from doing the same. In return the lodge has reliable access to ancient trees without having to take people on bushwhacking tours through a hot, humid and mosquito ridden jungle not knowing if the big trees would still be there. Although we only saw the big trees in one place we know there are more out there, as we saw a number of barges with massive tree trunks floating along the river and an active sawmill in Iquitos that had some of the biggest tree trunks either of us have ever seen.
Our trip into the Amazon was short and only hinted at the biodiversity it has to offer.Even the lodge owner, who has been living in the Amazon fulltime for the past seven years, said he saw things every day that were new to him. While what we saw weren’t the rarest of species, they were new to us: a two-toed sloth up a tree (our guide had never seen one in his ten years of guiding), grey and pink river dolphins, a host of frogs, toads, and snakes, and more insects, plants, and birds than I can ever hope to remember. There are still many things we missed that were on our list. Most were animals that, for me at least, are intrinsically associated with the Amazon, such as the South American tapir, the iconic Anaconda of the Amazon, the capybara (the world’s biggest rodent), and giant anteaters and giant otters to name a few. We definitely hope to go back someday not just to spot the animals we missed, but where else in the world can you go fishing for piranhas for lunch surrounded by the vastness of the world’s largest river and dense jungle?