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    Tambopata Newsletter    
Issue produced by the Resident Naturalist team: Stefan Harrison, Charlie Massey & Declan Burley
  Explorer’s Inn Newsletter is produced by the Resident Naturalist volunteers at Explorer’s Inn. More information about the Resident Naturalist Program including some of the volunteers' tasks and duties and a short introduction of the people who are currently partaking in this program can be found on the final page.  
July 2013
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In this issue:
  Recent Notable Sightings
Schrödinger’s Jaguar
The Friaje Strikes Back
Photography in the jungle – Declan’s Top Tips
  Recent Notable Sightings     Top  
 

Brazilian Tapir (Tapirus terrestris)

This month guide Christian and a group of guests were lucky enough to catch sight of the elusive tapir. The individual was seen on 27/07/2013 on Heliconia trail, a kilometre away from the lodge. Weighing up to 250kg, tapirs are the largest terrestrial mammal in the region.

Found solely in South America, they are the only extant native two toed ungulates in the New World. Tapirs are unusual looking animals and are found in the same order as horses and rhinos. They are large stocky creatures with long legs, thick necks and elongated upper lips which help them feed on foliage. Like all herbivores, they spend much of their lives eating huge amounts of leaves in order to take in enough energy to sustain themselves. They are mainly nocturnal and live solitary lives although will overlap feeding areas with other individuals if necessary.

They can generally be found in waterside habitats and swamps and can easily climb up or down steep river banks to reach water where they go to defecate. Due to their weight, their three toed tracks are commonly seen but the animals themselves are difficult to spot. They are normally quiet in the forest but when alarmed, can run for water, flattening everything in their path. Despite being found in Columbia, Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay, they are endangered in all these countries due to hunting for their prized meat.

Puma (Puma concolor)

On the 22nd July during a recent trip up river to Colpa Chuncho, guide Christian and a group of guests were lucky enough to have a brief sighting of this secretive cat jumping up the river bank and disappearing off into the jungle. This is the second largest feline that can be found wild in South America, able to weigh up to 100kgs and reach lengths of 2.5 metres (including tail).

This mostly nocturnal predator feeds predominantly on large mammal species such as peccary, capybara and deer but will also eat smaller prey such as rats, snakes and birds if the opportunity arises. These animals are the widest ranging cat in the entire world but are rare throughout their range due to hunting, habitat loss and competition for prey with game hunters. This wide range has led to this feline also having the most common names (mountain lion, cougar, puma etc.) of any big cat.

The position of the Puma at the top of the food chain dictates that it is a keystone species, i.e. it has an effect on the ecology of the area that is disproportionate to its biomass within the system. In this case the health and size of herbivore populations are controlled by these species due to the predator’s preference for hunting the sick or weak individuals within the population. This, by extension, reduces the risk of overgrazing of the shrub layer of the forest and works to minimize the proportion of deleterious genes in the prey population’s gene-pool. Without such top predator effects, species lower in the food chain can become overabundant to the point of causing ecosystem damage.

Jaguar (Panthera onca)

On the 22nd July during a recent trip up river to Colpa Chuncho, guide Christian and a group of guests were lucky enough to view this most majestic of cats as it rested along the bank of the Tambopata river. The jaguar is a big cat in the genus Panthera, and is the only Panthera species found in the Americas.

The jaguar is the third-largest feline after the tiger and the lion, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The jaguar's present range extends from Southern United States and Mexico across much of Central America and south to Paraguay and northern Argentina. This spotted cat most closely resembles the leopard physically, although it is usually larger and of sturdier build and its behavioural and habitat characteristics are closer to those of the tiger. While dense rainforest is its preferred habitat, the jaguar will range across a variety of forested and open terrains.

It is strongly associated with the presence of water and is notable, along with the tiger, as a feline that enjoys swimming. The jaguar is largely a solitary, opportunistic, stalk-and-ambush predator at the top of the food chain (an apex predator). It is a keystone species, playing an important role in stabilizing ecosystems and regulating the populations of the animals it hunts. The jaguar has an exceptionally powerful bite, even relative to the other big cats. This allows it to pierce the shells of armoured reptiles and to employ an unusual killing method: it bites directly through the skull of prey between the ears to deliver a fatal bite to the brain.

The jaguar is a near threatened species and its numbers are declining. Threats include loss and fragmentation of habitat. While international trade in jaguars or their parts is prohibited, the cat is still frequently killed by humans, particularly in conflicts with ranchers and farmers in South America. Although reduced, its range remains large; given its historical distribution, the jaguar has featured prominently in the mythology of numerous indigenous American cultures, including that of the Maya and Aztec.
 
  Schrödinger’s Jaguar     Top  
 

The resident naturalist (RN) programme at EI has bared witness to much change over the last couple of months. RNs Jo, Hannah and Becca returned home to the UK after their 10 month stay whilst 2 new RNs joined: I and Charlie Massey, along with volunteer Declan Burley. But the most profound change has been the tragic loss of Elisban. Many of 20 or so trails that connect the Inn to the forest were cut by the late Elisban, who sadly passed away in June this year. In some way, Elisban was as much a part of EI as the forest is, and the trails here are part of his legacy. Every trail that every guest and researcher uses was at some stage carved out of the thick jungle. Without trails we would not be able to see the wonders of the forest that draw so many people here, capture our imagination, and hopefully leave lasting memories with those individuals. As well as continuing the long term monitoring programmes and conducting our independent projects, one of the other RN duties is to maintain the extensive network of trails that connect people to the surrounding forest. With the rate of plant growth and tree falls in the tropics it would not take long for the forest to reclaim even an established trail and so it is that they need constant clearing. At first, this may sound like a mundane task but one hot-sticky day when I was in a mad fury with Pris (my machete) the implications of what I was doing dawned upon me.

When I first started clearing the overgrown trails I was hesitant to swipe living organisms out of my way. Considering the grand scheme of things it may sound sentimental, but I winced a little with every slice through these pristine specimens. And if you do not kill your victim then he is at least left brutally scarred. As someone who works at an eco-lodge and research station, who’s concerned with matters of conservation, I didn’t take lightly to my small efforts of needless deforestation and carbon release. And then, as so often happens when you are alone in the jungle, with only your machete for company, I got thinking. Is this forest really natural?

Sure, the plants and animals are all natural; they have all been here long before any of us and they are all “supposed” to be here. They subsist in perfect balance and harmony with each other in niches, ecosystems and biomes that have evolved naturally over many years. And then Man comes along. It is my opinion – and I believe I am correct in thinking that I share this opinion with the poet Bliss Carmen – that “Nature is the absence of Man”. Yes Man has evolved in a wholly natural way, and indeed has spawned from nature but I believe that in our evolution, there has been a paradigm shift that no longer means we are part of nature. For me (and Carmen) it is simply a matter of semantics; the word “nature” is one we have created to describe everything that is not influenced by Man. I believe a simple proof of this is that we have the sentinel ability to not only create such a word, but also to consider and write about its philosophical meaning – whereas no other living thing can do this.

In the same way that the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat can be used to illustrate how, by having an observer, the observation itself has already been altered, we can say that even by looking at “nature”, by being in its presence and observing it, that the effect of this observation is to make it (“nature”) unnatural. As I cleaved yet another swathe of spiny bamboo away and was showered in its sweet refreshing water, I felt a reassuring sense that I was justified in doing so. This trail is not natural; according to my rules of un-nature, these Bamboo plants are not allowed here and so it is that they should go. Whether it is to the Lagos Cocococha, Katicocha, Laguna Chica, La Torre River, the Colpita or just the surrounding forest, every trail allows us to observe something or other. Although we may not wish to, we could say we are in an interactive, living and breathing museum; the best type of museum!

As my trance of justified destruction continued, I continued to ponder: the trails have not only been carved randomly across the jungle floor, their construction has been carefully considered. In places they obviously meander along the path of least resistance, and they may once have connected the lodge to such attractions as the Lago Cocococha for other purposes, but now their primary purpose is to access and encompass viewpoints – observation sites – that appeal to our unnatural sensibilities. If you walk along Elisban trail you will admire several viewpoints over the Tambopata River. These are deliberate vistas; our jungle experience has been curated for our enjoyment. As I was clearing one of these viewpoints I realised how easy it is for one person and his machete to have such a large impact on a vast area of forest and it became clear to me what a fragile place the forest is. Elisban’s impact on EI was a purely positive one. It enriched the experiences of countless guests who when they leave, I hope will feel a little closer to nature. I hope too that, if they own a little piece of land behind their house that once belonged to nature, and if they can curate their own living and breathing museum a little bit less, then maybe a bit more nature will return home with them, extending Elisban’s legacy beyond the boundaries of this forest.
 
  The Friaje Strikes Back     Top  
 

As resident naturalists, one of our jobs is to undertake monitoring of the Black Caiman at Cocococha Lake. This involves leaving the lodge after lunchtime and trekking up to the lake with a box dinner and all the equipment required for a caiman search and overnight stay (i.e. hammocks, sleeping bags, a large spotlight and clipboard for recording data). We conduct a caiman search at Cocococha twice a month, covering half of it with each visit.

So this fateful day, with the sun beaming down, we began to make our preparations. Bags packed and lunches still warm inside their boxes, we headed out on main trail in the direction of the lake. The weather showed no signs of anything outside of the usual brilliant sunshine and warmth. Being heavily laden with equipment and supplies we decided to maintain a good pace, stopping only briefly to watch a group of Saddleback Tamarins leap from tree to tree alongside the trail. The wind had started to pick up but we thought nothing of it, grateful of the refreshing breeze. Little did we know of the conditions we were to face that night…

We made good time, reaching the lake in just over an hour. Declan and I strung up our hammocks whilst Stefan prepared his mat, preferring to sleep on the floor. We left ourselves plenty of space so that we weren’t cramped and then ate our dinner whilst the sun was disappearing below the horizon.

Once darkness had descended upon the lake, it was possible to start searching for caimans. To do this, two people paddle at the back of the boat whilst one holds the torch at eye level and scans the water, paying particular attention to the areas around the bank. In this way, the eyes of any caiman sitting in the water reflect the light from the torch, showing the location of the individual. Once a caiman is spotted we row the boat towards it and record the time it was seen, the species of caiman it is, an estimate of the size (sometimes difficult to tell if only the head is visible), the type of habitat it’s occupying and any unusual behaviour that it exhibits. Using this method, we began to survey the eastern half of the lake.

This was all going swimmingly for the first 20 or so minutes but we noticed that the wind, slowly but surely, was building, making paddling against it increasingly difficult. We soon began to see a lot of lightning in the distance. The fact that we were unable to hear any thunder suggested the storm was still a long way away, so we convivially continued with our work. It was only when we reached the far end of the lake (the furthest point from the hide) that we realised that the storm was rapidly coming in our direction, forks of brilliant white light illuminating the entire lake. With the wind now behind us we rowed the distance that had just taken us an hour and a half in 15 minutes and reached the safety of the hide, stopping only to investigate a caiman on the bank. As we approached said caiman, its true size was revealed by our torchlight. It was enormous and slid into the water as soon as we got close enough to take a picture… Typical!

As soon as we climbed into our hammocks, the heavens opened. This suddenly reduced our available dry space in the hide to about 10% of its original size as we struggled to avoid the rain coming through the roof. We achieved a relatively dry night by relocating the hammocks side by side (so close that they were touching) with Stefan sleeping directly underneath us! The rain, lightning and wind continued on through most of the night making sleep fitful at best. It’s at times like these that you only really appreciate the raw power of the natural world and despite a relatively poor night’s sleep we were all thankful to have had such an experience.

 
  Photography in the jungle – Declan’s Top Tips     Top  
 

This is a short article on some of the tricks I’ve learnt whilst trying to take pictures of the jungle and all the wildlife that lives within. Before I jump in I must explain why I have chosen this topic, and not gone down the conventional route of bio-sciences. At university I studied documentary film making, and I aim to work in wildlife documentaries, hence why I’m here in the jungle talking about how to photograph it. I must also mention that I’m not a professional photographer and these tips are what I have picked up since being here, so if you disagree with me or feel my tips aren’t helpful, I’m glad I could help waste your time.

My first tip of the day is so obvious it hurts me even to say it, but it’s to get yourself a camera. Selecting the right camera will depend a lot on your personal preferences and requirements; if you just want holiday snaps and you’re not fussed about shutter speeds, ISO settings or any technical camera jargon then buy yourself a point and shoot camera. They’re easy to use and you won’t have to worry about what camera settings to use as the camera will do all of that for you. When you see something you want a picture of just turn it on, point it and then press the shutter button; easy as pie. These days you can get some really good results for a low price. On the other hand you will never get the high quality of an SLR or DSLR (digital single lens reflex) but these cameras can take some time to get used to and when using them in manual mode you’ll have to know the basics about shutter speeds, aperture and ISO settings. You could say these cameras are for the more serious photographer, but they do also come with auto modes so you can learn as you go a long and still get a high quality picture.

The second tip is related to taking pictures of all the creatures great and small that you could come across whilst in the jungle. When walking the trails you must keep as quiet as you can so you don’t scare anything away. And with this rule you must prepare yourself to see anything and everything or nothing at all. So with the power of silence and great patience you stand a far better chance of seeing animals to photograph, and if you’re unlucky enough not to, there’s always our resident scarlet Macaw, Wawee.

Tip number three is to not hold back when it comes to how many pictures you should take. In other words don’t just take one picture at a time, take as many as your finger and camera will let you. You might never see this animal again and the more pictures you take the more you have to select from.

Tip four: the only word I know to describe the next tip is to ‘Chimp’. Chimping is when you take a picture and through the magical technology of a LCD screen on digital cameras you look at what you’ve taken. This is a good habit to form as sometimes you could take a picture and something could be wrong with it. Your subject could be out of focus or the white balance could be wrong. As much as I enjoy having a LCD screen on my camera, sometimes a screen can be misleading and when you plug your camera into a computer your pictures might not be as in focus as you hoped. So if you have the ability to zoom in on pictures on the camera do so and check that everything you wanted to photograph is in focus.

Tip five is about framing your shot. The most important thing you’ll need to consider whilst framing a shot is the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is a simple concept when you’re looking at your LCD screen or down your viewfinder. Spilt your frame into three equal horizontal zones; these days most cameras have the option to superimpose gridlines over your viewfinder or screen, which can act as a guide for the rule of thirds as well as keeping your horizons, well, horizontal. Framing up a shot all comes down to what you what out of the picture. For example if you’re taking a picture of a monkey just before it’s about to jump from one tree to another, don’t just focus on the monkey - use the rule of thirds to have the monkey at the bottom of your frame, have his jumping space in the middle and where he is going to jump to at the top. This way you will get a good sense of what the monkey’s about to do and where he’s headed.

The next section is aimed at people who use their camera’s manual mode, so I’ll be diving into the slightly more technical side of photography. If you don’t use manual modes maybe this section can inspire you to - or at least teach you - something you didn’t already know.

When you’re taking any photograph there are a few things you need to take into account, namely exposure and the strengths and weaknesses of your camera. These rules can’t be learnt over night but with time and practice you will start to develop your own style and technique (I’m still learning myself).

When considering the exposure of a shot there are many things that you have to take into account, but because I don’t have all day and I don’t want to waste any more paper I will talk about the three main elements: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. All three elements are separate functions on your camera that, combined in the right way, can produce that perfect shot.

Shutter speed is the speed at which your camera will open and close which in turn determines how much light hits the sensor.

Aperture (also known as f-stop) is how open your lens is. I usually think of it as the iris in your eye: the more open it is the more light it lets through.

The first thing I set out of these three is the ISO. ISO is the cameras own light that it uses to illuminate the sensor and ultimately the image. You have to be careful that you don’t set the ISO too high as it will create a higher electronic current which can lead to grainy pictures, but more expensive cameras are generally better at handling higher ISOs. I like to keep the ISO between 100 and 400; the reason being is if I go higher than 400 on my camera the picture start to look grainy. When in the jungle the light is often limited and is always changing, so I tend to set my ISO high. I find it easier and quicker to set my ISO once and change my shutter speed if I need to brighten or darken my picture.

When considering the best shutter speed you should take into account whether your subject is moving or not. If the shutter speed is too low and you’re trying to take a picture of a moving subject then no matter how in focused your camera is, the picture will be blurred. Aperture will also depend on the lighting situation you find yourself in. The one thing you must remember: the lower the aperture the more light the lens will let through, allowing faster shutter speeds, sharper images and greater detail.

These are just a few tricks and tips I have picked up in my first month living in this place that I’ve come to call home. One thing I’ve learnt is not to live life through the lens; for whatever reason it may sometimes be that conditions will prevent you from being able to take a good photo; so don’t get frustrated, enjoy the moment and take a mental picture.
 
 
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