We walk along the machete-blazed path, our footsteps padding along the fallen leaves and dirt. Leaf cutter ants haul pieces of dime-sized greenery across the trail in straight line, military style. We hike quietly and slowly so we don't spook the animals and don't miss anything during the two or three miles in. We will rest for an hour then hike back, counting monkeys, wild pigs and other large mammals that may cross our path.
The Elusive Uakari
Amazon Riverboat Exploration Diary, Team I, 2006
What we see will be combined with sightings by biologists and volunteers over several months to estimate how many species are in Lago Preto, including the endangered red uakaris monkeys. I wonder if we'll see a uakari. The highest concentration of red uakaris in the world is right outside our house boat, but I'm one of the only volunteers who haven't seen one. A few days ago, they ate breakfast for an hour pretty much over Gerry's head.
It's my last day of field research, my last chance. Juan, our local guide, and Maribel lead Laura and me on the trail. Soon, Juan stops. He looks at us and points to a cluster of trees about 40 yards away. I see some movement, some fur. Uakari?
Squirrel monkeys. Lots of them.
They are crossing the trail in the treetops, tails pitched high in the air like prancing cats. One by one, they emerge through the branches. A few stop a second to look down and check out their visitors. Juan says it was a troop of 20, with four capuchins tagging along. He and the other guides are amazing. Juan sees things we don't and hears things we never will. He grew up on the river; the Amazon is his back yard. Sometimes he lives out here on a platform for months. He watches over the Lago Preto concession area, bringing only sugar and rice, and spears fish for the rest of his food. In the forest now, he mimics a bird call and the bird answers.
Laura and I sidestep ruts of mud, then give up and enjoy trudging on the trail in the ankle-deep gunk. It sounds like a vacuum as it nearly sucks my hiking boots clean off. Further down the trail we are treated to another march of the same squirrel monkeys. The plants and trees are amazing and unlike anything I've seen. Trees look like braided ropes, vines like turtle tracks and bright green spaghetti noodles. An hour in, we hear the faint "chi chi" of uakaris. Jackpot!
Juan freezes and folds his hands across his mouth, imitating their call.
They come no closer. We wait, not moving a muscle.
Moments later the chatter fades into the forest. Out of luck. Juan asks me in Spanish, ‘have I seen a uakari?' I shake my head. With a small wave he flips his machete to follow him. This is never going to work, I think. The monkeys are long gone. We bush whack through branches anyway, ducking under spider webs and studded palm trees towards where we heard the last monkey conversation. After a few minutes, Juan stops. Ah well, we were close.
He stares at the forest floor as if in defeat, then points his hand to the trees above us as if ending a concerto. I follow his fingertips up to the treetops.
The uakaris! They are almost directly above us in "bacacho" trees, crossing to and fro, chowing down on fruit. Their fur is cinnamon, their faces cherry red. One is butt-down on a branch staring at us. He seems only vaguely distracted from his fruit by us and soon turns and takes off, swinging from branch to branch, lunging with grace and a loud rustle of leaves in its wake. There are so few in the world and there must be 10 right here, eating lunch in the Amazon. They are too far to get a close-up look, so while I am with them, they are still a mystery.
My mind flashes to the close-up photos we saw on the boat during a slide presentation. Their similarity to our own faces was startling. Now, I can't make out their features so my imagination fills them in. Big brown eyes, distinct lines on the face, and a big forehead. The one above us is about the size of a Dalmatian. It soon reaches out with its arms and disappears into the trees too.
They make their way through the canopy and get further away. Some of them stop like the squirrel monkeys to check us out. This is amazing. For a few moments, we've stepped into their world - or below it rather. I mouth, "Wow!" to Juan, who flashes me a big grin.
When they move on, Juan and I mark the milestone with a photo: me with my arms up in triumph and he hanging one of his around my shoulder, machete in hand, chuckling.
Kristine Dreessen participated on the Amazon Riverboat expedition in April 2006.
For 2010, all teams will travel to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, via the Ucayali, Maranon, and Samiria Rivers. Volunteers should be aware that the threatened uakari monkey, studied on previous expeditions to the Yavari River, does not inhabit this National Reserve. Other species of monkey however, such as the capuchin monkey and spider monkey, may be encountered.
Uarkari face photo copyright Mark Bowler, Amazon Images