Fernando was sitting on his veranda listening to the whoops and whistles of the jungle. Our visit was a surprise, but the old man was soon answering my questions, keen to talk.
“I arrived here in about 1960,” he told me. “A group of us came to start a new life. Hunting was easy. The animals were almost tame. We just used a blowpipe, no guns.”
I looked at him. No one knew for sure how old Fernando was – probably about 80 – but he was the oldest person in this 370 sq km of Ecuadorian jungle that’s home to the Sani community. He had seen the virgin wilderness subject to a lot of change: ecotourism arrived in the early 2000s, following less benign incomers in the shape of oil companies.
“They came a few years after I did, scaring the animals away. At least in our area we chose tourism. We kept our jungle, and our community spirit.”
We were on Ecuador’s Napo river, which runs east from the Andes and flows into the Amazon in Peru. The vast rainforest region it flows through is one of the most biodiverse in the world, and is being fought over by two great economic powers of modern life: petroleum and tourism. Only that morning the talk in the main village, an hour downstream, was of an upcoming meeting to discuss the future of the Sani Lodge. That gorgeous little cluster of cabins in a clearing by a lake was the only reason the community had refused the oil company’s offer. But Petroamazonas had come back a year ago with a new offer. The pressure was growing.
My young guide, Victor, put the issue bluntly. “We get an average of 12 guests a day at the lodge, but we need 15. The community is split, but at the moment the pro-tourism group has a small majority over the pro-oil group.”
I had never realised how brutally direct the relationship between conservation and tourism could be. And if I needed a reminder of what choosing oil might mean I’d seen it on the journey downriver from the city of Coca, a few days earlier. The banks of the Napo are dotted with communities and some have taken the petrodollar. In those places large oil storage tanks stand beneath blazing gas burn-offs. The riverbank, eroded by powerful marine engines, has been shored up with metal pilings below scruffy new buildings, and the primary rainforest has been replaced by a thin scurf of secondary growth.
Development further downstream, within Yasuni national park, was once unthinkable, but in 2013 Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa scrapped a historic “keep it in the ground” project. Permits were issued for drilling inside the 6,500 sq km park. For the Sani people, this was a crucial moment. Their land straddles the park border, and is known to contain oil.
Victor wanted to show me just how astonishing and beautiful his home is. “I love this forest,” he said. “I hate the thought of losing it.” So next morning we got up at dawn and paddled down the long lake watching for anacondas in the reed beds. Birds including the colourful “many-banded” aracari were clattering and gossiping overhead. In the distance we could hear the caveman moans of howler monkeys.
Victor missed nothing: his eyesight was extraordinary, and his hearing superhuman. When we left the kayaks and walked into the forest, he began moving by sound, hearing things I could not. “There’s a woolly monkey.” And then he would mimic their call with uncanny accuracy, bringing the woolly monkeys into view.
The trees were frothy with epiphytic ferns, orchids and bromeliads, each a habitat for more species than an entire secondary forest. Victor began squeaking and something answered. “Golden-mantled tamarin,” he whispered, and we left the path, circling the massive buttresses of a sabre tree, and briefly sighted a fabulous orange and black monkey. A hummingbird hurtled past my ear so fast I didn’t even see it, just felt the air tremble, but Victor spotted the greenish blur and identified it.
As the day continued, we added to our primate sightings: black-mantled tamarins, and a pair of night monkeys peering timidly from a hole in a tree. We spent an hour under a tree while Victor guided my eyes to the smallest monkey in the world, the pygmy marmoset – its body barely 15cm long.
The sun was setting by the time we headed back towards the kayaks. It had been a long, successful day, but it wasn’t quite over. Victor came to a sudden halt then, with a quick “Come on!” we were running as silently as possible through jungle, dodging vines and pausing to listen. The forest was dark beneath the canopy. A few late golden rays touched some upper trees. We crossed a stream, climbed a slope then abruptly doubled back. Perched on a low branch in one last ray of light, was a huge bird with a red bill. I had a great view for a few seconds, then it was gone.
“Salvin’s curassow!” said Victor. “Oh, you’re so lucky! Birdwatchers come from all over the world. One guy has been 27 times and still never seen it.”
It was only later, at the lodge, that I thought about that birder whose holidays are helping save a rainforest – because of a bird he cannot find. We’d spotted 42 species that day, many rare and endangered. Perhaps it’s time we all got a bit more obsessive about this.
Way to go
The trip was provided by Sumak Travel (020-36424246, sumak-travel.org) which promotes local community tours and initiatives. A 12-day tailor-made tour of Quito, the rainforest (with stays at Sani Lodge and Yasuni Ecolodge), Cuenca and Guayaquil, including accommodation, internal flights, transfers, excursions and most meals costs from £2,195pp. KLM flights to Quito via Amsterdam start from £479 return and can be booked through Sumak.
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