• Diego Balbuena

Tree Top Manu IV: Shipetiari – The adventure zone

Updated: Apr 22

Foto: Diego Sánchez Quispe

We were on our way to Shipetiari, a native community with recent encounters with the nomoles. On the way we didn’t see many animals, nor the highly awaited jaguar on the beach; nonetheless, we got a sighting not many people are lucky enough to see: a group of calatos or naked people, as the locals call the isolated Mashco-Piro tribe. They were young, some kids and teens moving their hands on an Alto Madre de Dios River beach; it looked as if they were saying “hello”. The older ones had old and dirty t-shirts, but were otherwise completely naked. The younger ones were fully nude. At first, we thought they were kids from a nearby community because of the clothing, but Santiago told us that they have been having contact with some communities, who give them clothes, machetes, pots and bananas. This has turned some of the nomoles into beggars. The kids were not saluting us, they were asking for stuff. If illegal to contact them and give them any kind of item or food, due to a high risk of disease transmission; however, contact still occurs and they are getting used to the tools they are given.

We arrived at Shipetiari past noon and staying in the community-managed Pankotsi lodge. There, we were warned about the possible dangers of the area; “last year the nomoles came and shot my son”, said Gregorio, the lodge manager. The furthest trail that lead to the aguajal (peatland)  was closed because that’s where the Mashcos came from. After having lunch (boiled egg, mandarin orange, biscuits) we planned what to do on the following day. I offered to help with that night’s herp-box because most of us were tired and the birders had to wake up early. We split in two teams expecting to finish 3 transects each.

I left with Jenny and Tasayco went with Julio. they stayed in the first transect while Jenny and I kept going tot he next one. They weren’t lucky that night, unlike us. We found different species of frogs and two snake species; one of them was a small, yet aggressive, amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus).

The morning after we went into the forest again to climb our first tree in Shipetiari, while releasing the frogs and snakes on the way. I was ready to climb my first tree there, while Ruth and Gareth prepared the anchor and passed the ropes across the canopy. While on the first 20 meters, two stories I got told before came to my mind: one time when Andy was climbing, an arboreal two-striped forest pitviper (Bothrops bilineata) fell from the tree close to the guys who stayed on the ground; and another time when the director of the Tambopata Macaw Project got bit by one while on a tree. Just because that’s how life is, I turn around to look at some vines, and there it was…

Loromashaco / Two-striped forest pitviper (Bothrops bilineata)

The fourth viper I’ve seen, and I was swinging with the wind 15 meter above the ground. I was able to take a few shots with Rodrigo’s camera, but unfortunately the best picture got corrupted and lost. Once I had reached the top of the tree, I felt something like a deja vu, as some things that were happening resembled what happened one day I was camping with some friends. First, the Bothrops; then, the wind was howling far away, but what seemed to be a storm was approaching while I was still on the tree. Soft winds moved nearby palms, strengthening and moving thicker and thicker trees; I couldn’t feel my tree move, as most trees around me were moving, but when I reached the ground, I got told the tree and the branch were I as sitting were swinging. Still up on the tree, I was less scared about the viper, but a treefall in the distance spiked the adrenaline in my blood. Luckily, I didn’t panic and placed the camera correctly. That’s definitely the most dangerous tree I’ve climbed.

Temperature dropped and we though another cold-front was approaching. The sky was overcast and it began to drizzle. I was waiting for a sunny day, I hadn’t done any laundry since Diamante. The wait was long; the clouded sky and rain didn’t stop. For four days. Mosquitoes and mantablancas, local name for small, white mosquitoes that carry leishmaniasis, were worse here than anywhere else I’ve been to. Not pants nor socks prevented us from being bitten by these parasites, we had to wear jackets and jeans to avoid bites. Heavy rainfalls made us cancel most of the herp-boxes and bird transects, so 3 groups ran surveys whenever possible to catch up.

 Sometimes, Terry, a local guy from Shipetiari who helps at the lodge, accompanied us to go climbing, helping us with the equipment, set-up, fruit collection and trail clearing; he liked to share his jungle knowledge with us, which was greatly appreciated. That night, Andy gave us a talk about the community; here unlike, in diamante, you didn’t hear chainsaws at all; it seems that they want to change. The nomole attack affected their economy significantly, so switching from logging and hunting to ecotourism became even harder for them. Upon arrival we met a group of communicators who worked for an NGO, they were producing a video about the Native Community of Shipetiari, to help them with this issue, advertising them. Flo, David and Ludo travel to Shipetiari every 2 months to film, socialize and learn; I hope I get to see the result of their work, even though I didn’t get any contact information. One day, Gerardo, a 17 year from the community came to the field with us. He had just finished high-school in Shintuya and wanted to go to college in Cusco, to study something related to what we were doing. We made him climb a tree and he was stoked about it! Ruth took the opportunity to teach me how to get someone down in case of an emergency, as Gerardo didn’t know how to descend. 

Ruth & Terry

May the 20th marked Manu National Park’s anniversary, so people from other places, such as Santa Cruz and Nuevo Edén, came for a football tournament.Our team was called Investigadores, which means researchers in Spanish, and we got destroyed. There were also all-female football games, and a volleyball tournament. What surprised me the most was the apparent lack of masato, a popular drink made from fermented casava.

We were running out of fuel for the generator, so sometimes we couldn’t charge our cameras, laptops or phones. When writing theses posts I check all the photos I’ve taken, ordered by date, so I get an idea of the order of things and what happened when. The lack of photos made me forget some details and the order of some events. Not only was the shortage of power a problem, the water system starting failing and we ran out of water. We had to put bowls and buckets under the roof’s edges to collect water to do the dishes, shower, etc. I had to do my laundry in the toilette’s water tank. We ended up drinking purified roof water.

At the end, we were able to do all the surveys we had to do, because the last morning was a dry one, so we all went to the field. 30 cameras, 20 arboreal and 10 terrestrial were placed in Shipetiari; there was only one site left to go. As we didn’t hear anything from Palatoa, Andy decided we were going back to the Manu Learning Centre (MLC) to run surveys and place cameras in the agroforestry plots across river.

Since we began running surveys, I heard storied about 3 bridges near the Yanayacu river, placed to cross some creeks. There were 3 bridges, one worse than the one before. Julio, the bridge-crossing pro, was the one who talked about them the most.

– Help me out, man! – First, let me take a picture.– Ok, but then you help me.

I finally got to see the bridges on the last few days, accompanied by Ruth and Gareth. We had to climb 3 trees that day, but it was raining until 1 pm. We made it to the first tree in one hour, arriving there at 2 pm, we had to cross the first bridge. After days of rainfall it was underwater, so I didn’t quite notice it was just a long root. the second bridge was after the second tree Ruth climbed; it was made of 3 long wiggling sticks. When walking on them, it was only wiggle, some were also bouncy, which didn’t make it easier! The third one, and luckily the last one, didn’t look like sticks or a fallen tree, but 3 long roots coming out of somewhere, my headtorch was no good. I know it sounds hard, right? Now keep in mind we were carrying around 20 Kg of climbing equipment + our field equipment.

Willy was waiting for us at the port, and helped us carry everything, as the trail to the port was quite long. Shipetiari bid us farewell with a message that I don’t think some appreciated as I did. The first time I saw a wild animal footprint, in Tambopata, I became intrigued about which animal left it. In the MLC I was allowed, and encouraged, to study and develop a small project and presentation about mammal tracks and IDing them in the field. Luckily that day, Tasayco and I were the first one on the way to the port and I was able to ID 5 different species’ tracks on that trail, fresh ones. Approximately 200m from the lodge, tracks started to pop up, firs the small prints of an armadillo (Dasypus sp.), followed by jaguar prints (Panthera onca) all the way to the port, there were also prints of a smaller cat, probably and ocelot or a margay (Leopardus sp.), there were also tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and red-brocket deer (Mazama americana) prints crossing the main trail. I knew they were fresh as it had been raining almost until the last day; they reminded me of what’s living right by our doorstep, but we can’t always see.

Tree Top Manu 2016 – I. Foto: Andrew Whitworth

Thanks, Shipetiari!

#Ecology #expedition #TreeTopManu