I’d barely entered into a dream when I heard Eduardo calling for Gustavo and me to get up. He was already rushing around, ready to head back to the lake where we’d left the lagartos piled in the boat. The sun was already getting hot and the animals needed to be measured and skinned before the tropical heat began the process of decaying. Unfortunately, I was feeling rather sick to my stomach and decided to stay behind (the culprit later turned out to be a yucca drink called chive that I’d had the night before on the boat). I spent a miserable day in my sweltering tent with vomit and fever, but was reasonably recovered by the time the others returned with the lagarto skins. I watched from a distance (my stomach still not being quite up to dead lagarto parts) as the men salted the skins for preservation and the women washed the meat taken from the tail with river water. It was dusk by the time they’d finished their activities and sat down for dinner. Eduardo had hoped to go hunting again that night, but everyone was too tired, so it was settled that they’d rest that night and start afresh the following day. Besides, another group of hunters had come downriver from a neighboring community to hunt and would need help to drag their boat to the lake in the morning.
|Matusha Aid'a - The Tacana name for 'lagarto'
(Caiman yacare), and the name of the Tacana
association of lagarteros.
The next morning I woke up feeling completely recovered and full of energy. After a breakfast of rice mixed with lagarto meat, Gustavo and I set off with our tents for the lake, dropped them in a pile and headed back down the trail to help the other group drag their boat, which weighed close to 1500lbs, along the trail. Not having a trailer for the job, the men placed logs spaced at a distance of 3 meters from one another, then lined up along a rope tied to the front of a boat. Attached to the rope were several sticks, on either side of which two men would line up and then run the boat forward along the logs like a team of huskies. Gustavo and I joined in, and I felt a bit like one of Santa’s reindeer, with the heavy boat gliding along behind. The process was exhausting and painstakingly slow, however, as we kept having to reposition the logs in front of the boat as we advanced.
Close to the lake, I abandoned the group to carry some equipment to the campsite, heading off along the trail on my own. I wasn’t gone fifteen minutes, and when I returned they grinned and said, “El Tigre!” They’d all seen a jaguar that came running from the direction I’d gone off on – I must’ve walked right past it without noticing! For Gustavo, who’d been working as a biologist in Bolivia for more than a decade, it was the first time he’d seen a jaguar in the flesh. “It must’ve been eating the remains of the lagartos,” he said, referring to the skeletons left behind the previous day.
|Gustavo shows one of the younger hunters
how to register the data to be recorded as
part of the scientific monitoring of the project.
The boat finally in the water, we set up camp on the lake and rested in our tents while waiting for the rest of the hunters to show up. This time I would be going in the boat with the group of hunters from the neighboring community, most of whom had never hunted lagarto before. As various types of crocodilian species – black caiman as well as caiman yacare – were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 80s during the animal skin boom, only in recent years has the Bolivian government allowed a strictly controlled harvest of a determined number of animals, and so for many of the younger hunters this was a new activity. In the case of the Tacana territory, this year's harvest is for 630 individuals, which according to the WCS biologists monitoring the project, represents approximately one percent of the resident population. The lifting of this ban, however, only applies to the caiman yacare, and hunting of the black caiman (a species that is much larger and slower to reproduce) remains illegal.
The thrill of the hunt had somewhat worn out for me, and once back on the lake, I fought to keep my eyes open. My exhaustion must have won out, because it wasn’t until the first loud Crack! of the shotgun that I jumped up in my seat, having somehow fallen asleep on my hard wooden plank. This time I was sitting up front and much closer to the action, and had to dodge around the men to make room for them to pull the reptile on board. The hunt was less successful that night, and only four animals were taken by the time the men admitted defeat and headed back to camp. As it was still early in the night, most of them decided to head off to a different part of the lake, but Gustavo and I decided to stay behind to get some sleep. My camping mat barely softened the lumpy, root-filled ground, but I put my head down and was out for the count.
The next morning the families of both hunting groups arrived – women and children – and sharpened their knives for the skinning. The animals were first dragged on to the bank, where Gustavo numbered them on their snouts according to the order in which they were killed. They then weighed and measured each individual, recorded the sex (all were male, as the females tend to be smaller and so are rarely caught), and once the skins were peeled off, Gustavo weighed each piece of tail meat that was to be taken for consumption. Some of the women also collected the fat, with which they would make a medicinal oil (supposedly good for the lungs), and once the skeletons had been picked over by birds and beasts, there was the possibility of returning to collect the teeth for artisan jewelry-making.
|Weighing the lagartos - the heaviest weighed in at 145lbs
|Measuring the length - some were close to 3 meters in length
|Gus weighs the tail meat.
|A 'lagartera' skins the animal.
While the men and women skinned the animals and separated the meat, I went around with my notebook, asking questions. As the topic of my doctoral research is ‘community science’, I was very interested not only in observing the lagarto hunt and how it was monitored, but also in interviewing the community members who had participated in a separate WCS ‘self-monitoring’ project of hunting and fishing, that had previously been operating in these communities. In this project, the hunters and fishers themselves were trained to fill out data sheets indicating various details of their hunts and catches: species, sex, weight, amount of hours spent and method of hunting, etc. Despite the fact that the organization had done numerous evaluations of the scientific and economic implications of the resulting information – for example, which species were found in abundance and what was the total monetary value of the bushmeat consumed per family – there was little information describing the perceptions of the participants themselves regarding their engagement in the project. What did they get out of participating? Was the resulting data of use to their communities? Did the project change the way they hunted and fished? What did they learn about concepts such as ‘conservation’ and ‘sustainability’, if anything?
Though the hunters and their wives were shy (and I was a bit nervous), they were willing to talk about their experiences with the project, which seemed to have been on the whole, very positive. In these remote communities, there is little opportunity to “learn something new”, as several of the hunters put it. Their participation in the registering of data from their hunts and catches not only taught them “how to measure and weigh”, but also about the different populations of animals in the forest – which species there were more of, which there were fewer of, and which were disappearing altogether. Some of the hunters used words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘extinction’, marking what must have been a close accompaniment from scientists, whose ‘conservation-based’ worldview, which tends to separate nature from humanity, does not often make sense to those who live directly from the land.
|Las Pampas - where the animals are found.
All of this could be seen as very positive, as a key challenge of conservation biologists is how to raise awareness among local people about the importance of protecting natural resources of such biologically diverse ecosystems as are found in the Amazon. However, whether or not such positive feelings towards conservation among the hunters resulted in corresponding behavioral changes is another matter. Several of the young hunters that I interviewed listed several species that they “no longer hunt”: endangered species such as tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and spider monkeys (Ateles chamek). But on other moments on the trip I saw evidence that they did indeed continue to hunt these animals. Later that day one of the lagarteros mentioned that during the previous year’s lagarto harvest they’d killed a tapir, which had provided them with meat for an entire week. And the family members of another hunter told me that they did still hunt and eat spider monkeys.
After the morning’s work was done, we headed back to Eduardo’s house to salt the skins and meat. Both groups of hunters and their families, along with Gustavo, headed off again that same night to the opposite side of the lake – two hours away in motorized boat. I stayed behind in the community, as the next day I was expecting a ride back down to Carmen del Emero with the newly elected leaders of the Takana indigenous territory. They were visiting all of the communities downriver to introduce themselves to their constituency, and I hoped to interview at least twenty more participants in the self-monitoring projects, which had been carried out in the same communities the Takana leadership would be stopping in. As transportation is scarce on this part of the Beni river, and there was no way of communicating with the outside world from where I was, I had my fingers crossed that they would indeed be passing by the next day and that they would remember to stop for me.
|Rio Beni at sunrise
But whatever happened, I knew that I had to just trust that things would work out. Or perhaps as Gustavo put it, “You just have to go with the flow in these places.” There’s really no way to plan, nothing set in stone. On my own for a change, I walked across the beach and waded into the quickly-moving waters of the Beni, savoring the coolness upon my skin. Sardines nibbled at my feet and some larger fish splashed to the surface a few yards away, but I felt alive, safe, at peace. The Amazon might hold countless dangers among its living, breathing diversity of flora and fauna, but I was beginning to learn that the more exhilarating moments are not those with sharp teeth and blood, but rather the quiet ones, where the jungle ceases to be ‘out there’, and begins to touch something deeper, something on the inside.