The sense of familiarity I expected to wash over me as I stepped out of the plane on Puerto Maldonado’s tiny airport was silenced by the strangely cold air that hit my face. I had not anticipated a friaje, a front of frosty polar currents that often hits South America in the winter months. Combine this with jet lag and a long car ride into the forest and the result is a very tired traveller. My first afternoon back in the most wonderful place on the face of the earth was therefore spent in bed. I can confidently say, however, that in the following two months I completely made up for this bit of ‘wasted’ time. I think my campmates would agree with me.
Being surrounded by other people with cameras, it would be selfish not to bring back interesting subjects to share with everyone. As long as a snake, lizard or frog fits in a bag (and is not dangerously venomous), it’s coming back to camp. Unfortunately, they don’t always fit.
When the friaje cleared up, I knew that this was the time to go out. Cold-blooded animals had been deprived of warmth for a week and had to come out to bask in the few patches of sun that the rainforest has to offer. I hiked to the edge of our land to search in an aguajal (a swamp with a special kind of palm tree) for any big-bodied snakes. I hoped that the animal I still want to see the most, the green anaconda, would make an appearance there. But after scouting around the algae-covered swamp for thirty minutes, I was ready to give up. I glanced to my left one more time and did a sudden double take. On a fallen tree, stretched out perfectly, was a three-meter long Boa constrictor, fatter than my upper leg. I felt a mix of emotions taking over. Somewhere down in the primal parts of my brain, there was a dim fear for this creature; have we not been naturally selected to have an inherited fear of serpents? But mostly, I felt respect and awe for this wonder of evolution. With my trembling hands I was barely able to grab my camera. As I walked closer to inspect the marvellous animal, I realized there was no way I would be able to catch this behemoth. Its head was almost invisible in the thick undergrowth, and my futile attempt to lift up the back of its body only resulted in the boa casually slithering out of reach.
Despite seeing a giant armadillo and a giant anteater in the following months, this has been my favourite wildlife sighting.
The longest night walk I’ve ever taken also turned out to be the best. I started off at 17:30 with a packed dinner and only returned at half past midnight. After eating my rice and eggs on a log next to a rather frightened collared tree runner, I finally found a species of boa I had somehow not seen before. A young Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) was hunting in a small shrub at eye-level. Finding this beautiful serpent only leaves me with two boas yet to find in the Amazon basin: the green anaconda (or ‘water boa’) and the very rare emerald tree boa. After bagging the young snake I continued my 12 km nocturnal loop while growing more and more tired. After 11 PM, I did not think I would see anything more as my exhausted stumbling would surely scare everything off. Imagine my surprise when I came eye to eye with a foraging giant armadillo. It’s hard to describe just how big this animal looks when it stands a mere two meters away from you. Seemingly oblivious of me, it sniffed the ground in search of insect nests to raid, before calmly walking off into the night. This encounter still had my heart pounding when I walked back into camp and made my way towards the kitchen. Next to one of the galletas (wooden stepping stones) I saw the unmistakable pitch black body of a mussurana (Clelia clelia). This snake was most likely interested in making a meal out of a sleeping lizard when I caught him in the act. After safely containing the serpent, I plunged into a deep well-deserved sleep.
Some weeks, I would find at least one snake every single day, either at night or during the day. Other weeks I would find nothing. I wonder what drives these strange clusterings of snake sightings; is it the weather, or am I simply better at searching during certain weeks? Why do I sometimes have five snakeless days in a row, and then a night with both a rainbow boa and a rare coral mud snake (which unfortunately got away, as neither my pal Sean nor I knew what it was).
Snakes are not the only reptiles I found while searching for subjects in the rainforest. In streams and small lakes, caiman predate on anything they can take. When you’re in the forest for long enough and you’re surrounded by other crazy people, catching caiman becomes a fun nighttime activity. The forest harbours many beautiful lizards, tortoises and turtles as well, like an Amazon thorntail (Uracentron azureum) that fell on someone’s helmet as they were climbing a tree.
Finding reptiles can sometimes feel like playing Pokémon. You want to catch them all, but this becomes harder and harder as you find more species. The common species become familiar to you (e.g. rainbow boa’s, yellow-footed tortoises and collared tree runners) while you crave more for the rare or hard to find ones; I think of anacondas, matamatas and emerald tree boas. Fortunately, you level up as you find more species. You learn where to look, how to catch them and to safely handle your subjects. It can be overwhelming to look up the incredible biodiversity that exists within the class of Reptilia (finding out about dwarf boas was interesting) and think of all the species that are still hiding out there, waiting to be found and classified within our strange and ever-evolving taxonomic system.