Text and photos by Vincent Vos, in the framework of the research: The Search for Tapirus kabomani in Bolivia, with support of the Tapir Preservation Fund
The search for the pygmy tapir in Bolivia requires a lot of time dedicated to literature reviews, skull measurements, statistical analysis and the like, but once in a while we also need to travel to small peasant and indigenous communities hidden within the Bolivian Amazon, enabling us to get close to nature in the style of the great naturalists. This blog entry aims to let all our donors and others visiting this site to be part of these adventures into the pristine Amazon jungle.
The main differences between the recently described pygmy tapir (Tapirus kabomani) and its well known cousin (Tapirus terrestris)
This narrative describes a visit to Enarevena, a small community on the banks of the Negro River (Rio Negro). The community used to be part of a large rubber estate, but since the bust of the rubber market in the 1980’s only a few families have remained, living on small-scale agricultural plots, hunting and gathering in the surrounding forests, and fishing in the Rio Negro. Their contact with the outside world was mostly restricted to the yearly sales of Brazil nuts.
The village of Enarevena is formed by a handful of simple cottages distributed between the football field, the bank of the Rio Negro and the surrounding forests.
About five years ago, this started to change when an international timber company opened up a new road to a timber concession near the Brazilian frontier, including an improvised bridge over the Rio Negro near the community. Since then a growing number of families have settled in the region to get access to the timber and Brazil nuts.
I decided to visit the Enarevena community after I heard rumors about locals having hunted two tapirs a few days ago and decided to risk a trip to this community within the northern Pando Department of Bolivia to see if I could get my hands on a tapir skull. Since the publication by Cozzuol et al last year about the existence of Tapirus kabomani, I have been asking around about this small black tapir. Many locals have confirmed knowing about this second type of tapir, but for now I haven’t managed to get any scientifically acceptable proof to demonstrate its existence in Bolivia. I hoped my trip to Enarevena would change this.
Daily more than 30 trucks full of timber cross the Beni River on improvised wooden ferries.
Taking into account the distance of some 100 Km from my home in Riberalta, at about 5:00 A.M., I left with some forms for the interviews I was planning to do, several pictures of tapirs, enough tools and spare parts to be able to fix my motorbike if necessary, and my camera. I soon left the still quiet city of Riberalta behind and made my way into the rural area. In spite of the rain suit I put over my camouflaged overalls, in these early hours of the day, the cold still made its way to my skin, especially after passing the community of Warnes, where the landscape changed from cattle pastures to humid várzea forests. After about an hour, I arrived at the Beni River near Loma Alta. Together with a group of fishermen and several truck drivers from Riberalta we waited about half an hour for the fog to clear up so the ferries could start crossing the river.
Soon after the first truckloads of timber were crossed, it wasn’t long before I could continue my trip to Enarevena, using a road recently cut through the forest by the timber company. Although numerous side roads indicated heavy timber extraction, on both sides of the dust road, tropical trees still formed a large green curtain characteristic of the Amazonian terra firme forests. Road conditions were perfect thanks to the lack of rain and recent road improvements, enabling me to make good progress towards Enarevena. But soon I decided to enter one of the side roads to check the local wildlife before the heat of the sun reduced their activity. Despite a cacophony of sounds I only managed to catch a glimpse of a number of birds, until my attention was drawn by something moving in the canopy over my head: a tayra (Eira barbara) was speeding down a tree. I quickly moved my camera in its direction and started filming, but once again the thick vegetation blocked my view. Nonetheless I felt pleased by this little treat of nature.
Along the trip I made several stops to hike short distances into the forest and take pictures of animals and plants, like these 50 meter (164 foot) high Brazil nut trees (notice my motorbike for comparison) providers of the main economic product of the region.
About an hour later I found myself chasing a group of titi monkeys (Saguinus fuscicollis). Despite the forest being relatively low here, the large number of trees made filming almost impossible and once again the animals moved further into the forest without me being able to get any nice pictures. I thus continued my trip, once in awhile stopping to check out the wildlife I saw along the way, including several beautiful tropical birds like parrots and toucans.
At about 11 A.M., I arrived at the Enarevena community and directly made my way to the Rio Negro. Water levels were very low, and I saw the timber company had managed to reconstruct the bridge that had been destroyed by this year’s flooding. Although some of the large Brazil nut trunks used to cross the stretch of water were still awkwardly placed I could make my way to the other side where a family from Riberalta had settled to make a living from the sale of food, drinks, and other basic products. I greeted the local family and after some small talk, Doña Elsa offered to prepare me a lunch in about an hour, which would enable me to check around the Enarevena community to see if I could find information about the pygmy tapir.
I had lunch with a local family in their house at the other end of the bridge at Enarevena
A few minutes later, I was sitting in front of the house of Don Carmelo, together with some of the other oldest inhabitants of Enarevena. All the younger men had gone off to Santa Crucito at a distance of more than 50 km (31 miles) to play an important soccer match as part of the local “mundialito” (Small World Cup). Too bad because this also meant that the hunters I was looking for weren’t present in the community, but as Don Carmelo told me, this really didn’t matter too much since the animals hunted had been skinned and cut up in the forest. The heads and skulls had been left behind along a trail more than 6 hours on foot from Enarevena and my schedule wouldn’t permit me to visit this spot. Luckily Don Carmelo said he would pass along the word and he promised the locals would try to bring the skull next time someone traveled to Riberalta.
During lunch I enjoyed the scenery and the sight of hundreds of butterflies coming to the Rio Negro to quench their thirst.
Despite this bad news, the conversation started to become interesting as Don Carmelo and his “compañeros” began sharing their knowledge on tapirs. I felt sorry to have to interrupt them to ask for answers to some specific questions. I explained I wanted the answers to show the value of this knowledge to biologists around the world. They easily agreed to contribute to my research, so I got my forms and moved through the questions designed to check local knowledge on tapir species, their habitat preferences, behavior patterns, and other ecological characteristics. Carmelo easily and confidently answered all of my questions and soon we found ourselves talking freely about the wildlife in the region, with him and his friends exchanging ideas about the different species of agoutis, river dolphins, monkeys, and peccaries they knew about in the region.
As usual, the knowledge of these locals was astounding, with clear descriptions of physiognomic and ecological characteristics of the species described. However, things started to get confusing when we entered into the realm of mystical creatures such as the Niru-niru (a diabolic nocturnal monkey which in groups of 200 is said to come down from the trees to attack those who are not careful enough at night) and the Pata-de-coco (a bigfoot-like bipedal giant ape that leaves gigantic circular-shaped footprints and is said to be able to split up Attalea palms with its bare hands to eat the edible palm-heart). Both species are well known by locals but obviously very questionable from a scientific point of view. However, as in other similar interviews I have done in the region, don Carmelo and his friends have no doubt about the existence of these mystical creatures.
During the interview one of Don Carmelo’s granddaughters showed of her parakeet (Brotogeris cyanoptera).
Although I was intrigued by the information shared, I had to say goodbye to my new friends to find one of the local chickens which had been converted into the lunch for me. The local family invited me to their table as if we’d have known each other for years. During lunch the conversation soon returned to the enormous variety of animals in the region and the close encounters with mysterious creatures. During dinner several other locals joined in the conversation and some even confirmed the existence of an uncontacted tribe of Pacahuaras still hidden deeper in the forest. I felt sad to have to leave this beautiful place to start my return trip to Riberalta.
The Pakahuaras once were a very numerous people of the northeastern Bolivian, but the rubber boom led to a virtual genocide of this indigenous tribe. Recently, the last known female Pakahuara “Doña Busi” died, implying the extinction of this culture. The possibility that an uncontacted group of Pakahuaras still roams the forests of the northern Bolivian Amazon constitutes a last hope for their survival. (Foto by Rimberto Terrazas)
It was on my way home that I saw a group of parakeets near a small stream through the forest. I took some pictures of this species I hadn’t seen before and, while I was busy trying to get a better angle, I noticed something coming up behind me: another Tayra was crossing the road, apparently unaware of my presence. This time I managed to get some pictures before it vanished in the dense vegetation, together with its mate who quickly followed behind.
These parakeets (Pyrrhura amazonum) seemed to be almost as curious as I to see “a new species.” The tayra (Eira Barbara) hardly seemed to notice me.
A few hours later as I was once again crossing the Beni river, I evaluated my trip. I didn’t get my hands on any skulls yet, but I managed to do an interview, and even more, I felt very confident that it would be just a matter of time before I could my hands on the “proof” I was looking for. Moreover, I had had a great time sharing with the people of Enarevena and enjoying the beautiful scenery and incredible wildlife along the way. So, not quite yet, but happy anyway!
Black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) are still common along the Negro and Beni river.
N.B. All pictures used for this document (except those comparing T. kabomani and T. terrestris and of the Pakahuara woman) were taken by Vincent Vos during the trip described.
and The Tapir Preservation Fund