CONSIDER the macaw. The brightest bird in the rainforest comes in three main colour combinations – blue and yellow, red and green, and the particularly eye-popping scarlet macaw, its luminous plumage tinted with the full spectrum and tapering to iridescent golden tail feathers. The scarlet ranges further than its fellow macaws, its neotropical domain extending from Mexico to Argentina. Somewhere in the middle, above the shady canopy of the Peruvian Amazon Basin, two of them fly out of the dawn mist and over the 30-metre observation tower we’re standing on. The rising sun glints off their distinctly metallic finish, a sight to turn the most ignorant tourist into an avid birdwatcher, or a biologist into a poet.
“Why so beautiful?” asks our guide Pedro Lima as we watch them go. I presume this is some kind of rhapsodic rhetorical question, until I realise that he’s expecting us to answer. What purpose does it serve for a creature to stand out so spectacularly from its surroundings? In evolutionary terms, such decorous beauty must be a liability, attracting the attention of predators and so on? Pedro says that local researchers have their theories on this, and he has his own, but he won’t tell us what they are until we’ve mulled it over for a couple of days.
The slow boat trip from Puerto Maldonado to the Tambopata Research Centre takes a whole afternoon and most of the following morning, with a leisurely overnight rest stop at the Refugio Amazona, a luxurious wooden lodge with a quality cocktail menu and a hanging lounge of hammocks. The bedrooms have only three walls – the fourth is left open to the rainforest. It’s pretty noisy out there around sunset, with capuchin monkeys staking out the upper branches and gangs of squealing peccaries (wild boars) crashing through the undergrowth.
But when the moon clears the trees to cast a gauzy yellow glow against the mosquito net, it proves amazingly easy to sleep. We wake at first light to climb the canopy tower before getting back in the boat to push against the current for another few hours, passing ghost-white caiman crocodiles and poor fortune-hunters panning for gold in the shallows of the Tambopata River. After stopping to sign in at one last checkpoint, named after the Polish engineer Ernest Malinowski – a hero in Peru for his building of railways at high altitudes through the Andes – we arrive at the most remote ecolodge in South America.
First built to house visiting scientists in early 1990s, the research centre was subsequently expanded to accommodate guests and tour groups by its current operators at Rainforest Expeditions. A touch more rustic than last night’s Refugio, it’s still a sturdy, cosy construction, recently relocated a bit further back from the waterline to avoid the ever-encroaching floods of the rainy season. The rooms, again, are one-quarter open to the elements, and ours is at the very end of the single long corridor.
“Next to the tarantula nest,” says Pedro. We assume that he’s joking but we are quickly wrong-footed again. Later, after dark, he leads us around the back of the lodge and waggles a thin metal wire around the entrance of a small hole in the earth, about three metres from where we’ll be sleeping. The vibrations draw a large black female tarantula out into the beam of his head-torch, her forelegs poised to strike. “See? No joke,” he says, laughing.
The tourists and their guides eat three square buffet meals a day in the refectory, alongside the lodge’s base population of researchers, students, and volunteers. The food is good, especially when garnished with fresh, hot Amazonian chilli sauce. And the conversation flows quite nicely, though turning sometimes to self-consciousness as Pedro and other locals explain that eco-tourism may be the only long-term hope of saving this forest. We are sitting in a national reserve that is nonetheless open to exploitation through any number of government concessions for logging and mining, not to mention the informal and illegal fringes of those trades. “You can’t just tell native people not to cut down trees or kill the animals,” says Aldo Malagacari, a former timber worker now employed by Rainforest Expeditions.
“Well, you can, but it doesn’t seem to be working. If you give them jobs in eco-tourism instead, then maybe the local economy and environment will have a sustainable future.” The macaws are supposed to help with this, in their capacity as both a “flagship species” (drawing attention to local conservation issues with their bright colours and brash attitude) and an “umbrella species” (protecting these birds in their habitat also serves to shield other animals from many of the same hazards). Two scarlet macaws in particular keep coming around at mealtimes and making raids on the tables, swooping down to grab at the butter.
“It’s their favourite,” sighs one of the staffers, reminding us to keep it covered. These two are known as “chicos” around here, survivors of an experimental programme that took every third and fourth chick from broods hatched in artificial treetop nests built by pioneering researcher Eduardo Nycander in the early 1990s. Usually, those chicks would be left to die while their mothers nurtured only the first and second born, but for three generations they were hand-raised by humans instead, then tagged and released.
Those chicos are now in their 20s, with families of their own – macaws mate for life, and that life can be as long as 60 years in the wild – but their have never lost their semi-domesticated affection for humans or their taste for our dairy products. Unsalted butter wouldn’t cut it, however. It’s salt they want and salt they lack, according to the studies conducted on this site. Condensed seawater from the Pacific is mostly depleted of sodium by the time it clouds over the Andes and falls into the forest, and the only place macaws can get as much as they need is at a so-called “clay lick” – open clearings of sodium-rich soil close to the riverbank.
Thousands descend to eat the clay at the Colorado lick near the research centre, a blaze of colour spiralling down out of the air to form a feeding frenzy on the ground. Or so we’re told by Pedro and the observation team. It is our bad luck to arrive at the same time as an unseasonable cold front, which causes the macaws to stay huddled in their nests. “I haven’t seen any on this shift,” whispers a young American researcher named Kathryn, whose job is to watch and wait in silence like a sniper in the bushes, scanning the area every five minutes with a powerful telescope and relaxing with a novel by TC Boyle between each sweep. If the macaws do show, she simply has to count them, log them, and monitor their foraging patterns. Having heard that this is also jaguar territory, I ask Kathryn if she’s ever seen one here.
“No,” she says, sounding understandably despondent about it. “There’s only one jaguar per 100 square kilometres, so you have to be pretty lucky, but one of the other researchers actually saw two of them playing just over there last month.” Again, we are not quite so fortunate, and Pedro informs me that I am “a little unrealistic” in hoping to see a jaguar fight an anaconda at some point on this trip. He distracts us instead with long and fascinating walks around the reserve, pointing out phantasmagorical plants and animals: toucans and cobalt-winged parakeets, capybaras and brown agoutis, a pit viper incubating in the hollow of a tree, “walking palms” that slowly migrate across the forest floor, ceiba trees where native tribes once buried their dead, believing that the roots extended down to the underworld and the branches reached as high as heaven. The trunks are now harvested for lumber, says Pedro, and duly rendered into plywood.
This has caused problems for the macaws who make their homes in such tall trees, increasing competition for nesting space and fragmenting the species into isolated populations, as logging and mining concessions cut inroads through their habitat. Macaws in general are not yet endangered, though certain types, such as the blue-headed, are listed as vulnerable, and others have already died out. Aside from hawks and eagles they don’t have many predators either, which is one possible reason why they get away with such bright feathers.
(Ironically, this has made them prey to human hunters, who kill them for trinkets or sell them into captivity on the illegal pet trade.) Back at the lodge, the resident experts suggested a number of other theories for those gorgeous colourings, from sexual selection to a kind of camouflage – where the sun shines through the canopy and reflects off wet leaves it tends to confuse the eye, making even scarlet macaws much harder to see than you might have imagined. “There,” says Pedro, pointing to another roosting couple set against the twilight.
Who knows how old these macaws might be, or what they have seen in their time? They could well have been flying together over this forest before the interoceanic highway was built, before the national reserve was established, before any of us now watching them were even born.
So tell us then, Pedro: why should they be so beautiful? “This is just my personal opinion,” he says, “and it’s not very scientific. I think they are showing us how successful they are. So much has happened to them, but they are still here. It’s like they are smiling, as if everything is great.”