A 48 foot long anaconda. Black caimans that measure one meter across. Men who fight jaguars with their bare hands. After 2 weeks with fishers and hunters along the Beni river, the incredible begins to seem like the truth. Percy Fawcett, an English geographer and explorer who traveled these lands a century ago, once said that in the Amazon, the true stories are more unbelievable than the myths… For my part, I’ve begun to wonder if in the jungle, anything at all might be possible.
I started my journey on September 13th, two full days after our planned departure date – a new record (in my experience) for getting off to a slow start. The problem, as usual, was gasoline. Not only did we need approximately 400 liters to ensure our boat got down and back up the river, but there was the additional necessity of acquiring several hundred liters for the lagateros (caiman hunters), who would need it to travel to distant lakes for the harvest in their motorized canoes.
|Gustavo, the biologist
We headed off again at dawn and made it to Carmen del Emero, the furthest (and largest) community downriver in the Tacana territory, before nightfall. The lagarto hunt was getting off to a slow start, with almost half of the hunters being absent – some were in Rurrenabaque, gathering supplies and getting their rifles fixed, while others had simply decided not to participate. As both Noelia and Don Azar would be staying with the two groups of lagarteros in Carmen del Emero, I decided to go several hours back upriver with Gustavo to a community called Cachichira, where there would be room for me in the canoe to directly observe the lagarto hunt.
|Don Eduardo - a real joker!
Once back at Cachichira, Gustavo organized with Don Eduardo, the leader of one of the hunting groups, that the following evening, Saturday the 15th, would be the first night of the hunt. In Tacana culture Fridays and Tuesdays are bad days for hunting – starting the cosecha on a Friday would be a guarantee for bad luck. The 15th also happened to be my birthday – to celebrate, Don Eduardo and his family took Gustavo and myself to their family hunting grounds, where there was a vernal pool full of two species of mud-dwelling fish - buchere (Hoplosternum littorale callichthyidae) and zapato (Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus loricariidae). The fishing method was one I had never seen before – the family entered the pool with small nets, in which they caught the fish, and then tossed them with their bare hands onto the muddy bank, where Gustavo and I picked them up and placed them in sacks. We collected more than 100 fish in this way, several of which we ate cooked in the embers of a fire lit right beside the pond. The rest we brought back to the house, which Eduardo’s wife, Sarela, stewed into a salty soup.
That night we set off for the lake, a 45-minute walk from the house, where the men would be hunting for lagartos. In past times, a ritual to the Pachamama or to the amo of the lagartos (La Fiera - the giant anaconda), would have been carried out, but now the only requirement is the taking of coca leaves (called boleando for the shape of the ‘bola’ or ‘ball’ the leaves form in one’s cheek when chewed). The moon was absent and the stars filled the dark sky above us as we pushed silently through the reeds and into the lake. I was filled with a sense of anticipation – what would it be like to witness the killing of not just one animal, but many? For the first hour we glided along with no success – this part of the lake was filled with lagartos that were too small for the taking – the hunters could tell the approximate size of the animal by the length of its snout, which typically is the only part visible above water. I was beginning to wonder whether there would be any hunting after all, when we came across our first victim. The rowers brought the boat within a few feet of the lagarto, Eduardo took aim with his rifle, and crack! The bullet hit its mark, the lagarto sank into the water, Eduardo grasped rapidly for the wooden ‘hook’ to search for the body, but it was too late – our first kill was lost in the depths of the lake. Not a good omen, I thought to myself. Though perhaps it could be seen as a gift, a sacrifice to the Pachamama.
|Holding the snout tight.
The men didn’t seem overly concerned either way. On we rowed across the lake, this time to a section where all of the lagartos were of a good size. Once again we pulled up to a lagarto, who despite the beam of the flashlight upon it and the closeness of the canoe, didn’t seem to be aware of our presence. Eduardo took aim, fired – crack! As the animal turned belly up, Gustavo, who was sitting up front with Eduardo, grabbed for one of its feet, and then its snout, which Eduardo held tightly closed together while another of the hunters finished the kill – three hard hits with the hachet to the brain – a necessary precaution, as these reptiles are capable of remaining alive (and dangerous) even with a bullet in their head. One of the hunters told me a story of a black caiman – several meters in length – suddenly regaining consciousness to run back into the lake several hours after having been shot and its skin peeled off.
|Bringing the kill onboard.
For the next few hours we proceeded in this way – the lagarto shot in the head, hits with the hachet, dragging the body into the boat, where the tails moved feebly at my feet. Occasionally Eduardo would miss his mark by an inch or two, and the reptile would launch itself out of the water, snapping at the air - sometimes a bit too close to the canoe for my comfort. Slowly the boat filled with blood, and I tried to connect in my mind the aims of the conservation movement with this activity. From the perspective of an anthropologist (which is one of the academic fields of my research), the relationship between Gustavo (the scientist) with the hunters was fascinating. Not only was he there to take notes (the precise time of each kill), as well as to ensure that the lagarteros didn’t throw aside any too-small animals they shot by accident, but he aided with the hunt by helping to pull the animals into the boat. Even myself, an onlooker for all purposes, was required to bolear and smoke cigarettes with the men and to help push the boat when we got stuck in the weeds, at times wading through the piranha and snake-filled water in total darkness.
|Caimans in the boat.
We returned back to the bank of the lake at 4am with a total of 15 lagartos – a good number for a night’s hunt – and set off to walk the 45 minutes back to Eduardo’s house. On the way to the lake I’d stepped carefully, concerned about snakes, but heading back I was so tired that I dragged myself along, barely looking at my feet. At one point Eduardo disappeared into the trees with his rifle, having spotted something else to hunt – a deer perhaps. He seemed as alert as ever, and I recalled that we’d all have to be up again at dawn, to return to the lake to measure and skin the lagartos – at most we’d catch 3 hours of rest. But even as I lay down in my tent, I stared up through the mesh of the mosquito netting wondering with countless unanswered questions. How would La Fiera, the amo of the lagartos, feel about all of this hunting? Were such sustainable harvests the future of conservation? What role did science play in all of this?
A rooster crowed. The mosquitoes droned. Sleep.