January 18, 2013 6:33 pm

Snakes and scientists in darkest Peru

Just two hours from Cusco – thanks to new flights – tourists can track jungle fauna alongside academics and volunteers
An excursion by boat on the Manu river©Adrian Gallop

An excursion by boat on the Manu river

Death appeared shortly after dawn in the elegant form of a western Amazon coral snake. We glimpsed it, menacingly banded in black, yellow and orange, as it slithered across the forest trail and disappeared into the undergrowth of Peru’s Manu National Park. Most would have been happy to see it go but not Andy Whitworth, son of the owner of the only pet shop in Oldham. Pursuing it like a heat-seeking missile, he scrabbled in the vegetation and emerged with the squirming trophy in his bare hands.

A metre long and no thicker than a quality cigar, the snake dispenses a venom that paralyses and kills within hours. Not a creature to turn your back on. You wouldn’t cosy up to it either, yet Whitworth held it neatly behind its head with no trace of fear. As I’d become accustomed to handling snakes at the Manu Learning Centre over the previous week, I reached out to touch it. Wrong. Whitworth, who is not given to panic, let out a strangled yelp.

Peru is 60 per cent rainforest, which is home to less than 6 per cent of the population and to an astonishing 10m species of flora and fauna. In concerned circles, Puerto Maldonado, an outpost on the Madre de Dios river in the southeast of the country, is an axis of evil. The expanding frontier town is a trading centre for illegally logged timber, while unlicensed gold mining has caused deforestation and seen rivers poisoned with mercury.

As yet, none of this is in evidence at the Manu Learning Centre, headquarters of the Crees (Conservation Research and Environmental Education towards Sustainability) foundation on the Upper Madre de Dios, 10 hours upriver from Maldonado. The organisation was set up by Quinn Meyer, a 34-year-old Anglo American former venture capitalist, who plans to make a benevolent impact on an area he first fell in love with as a pioneering volunteer. His approach is vigorously multipronged, with cultural, scientific and socioeconomic projects in varying stages of fruition.

Peru

My trip to Manu began on a dirt mountain road out of Cusco and continued ever downwards through the cloud forest. En route, Meyer outlined the philosophy that underpins his crusade to enhance the 643 hectares of equatorial jungle he bought in 2002 for £35,000. The Manu Learning Centre opened in 2004, initially being used only by researchers and volunteers, but in late 2011 Crees launched a programme allowing tourists to visit and, in doing so, to help fund the non-profit-making foundation.

Wildlife tourism here faces challenges not encountered by operators in Africa, where big beasts are easily spotted on vast plains from open-topped vehicles. Jaguar, puma, tapir and other mammals thrive here in the hot forest but they have plenty of hiding places, so sightings can’t be guaranteed. Meanwhile, worthy buzz words – biodiversity, sustainability, ecosystem – hang in the humid equatorial air, causing alarm among holidaymakers who struggle to link them to something they might actually want to see or do.

After an overnight stop-off to check out cloud forest residents – cock of the rock, Peru’s startlingly red national bird, and the endangered woolly monkey – we arrived at the Manu Learning Centre on the riverbank near the small town of Salvación, in time to meet the residents over supper. The accommodation is in four-bedroom thatched pods, some with en suite bathrooms, perched on stilts above hostile fauna and rising damp. It’s civilised and convivial but Meyer’s unique selling point is introducing his guests to research scientists and volunteers, many of them graduate students, who have the knowledge and passion to bring the forest to vibrant life in a way that professional guides can’t quite match.

A horned forest dragon

A horned forest dragon

As darkness fell, I borrowed wellies and squelched noisily after Whitworth on a mission to get up close to creatures of the night. As part of the research for his PhD thesis at Glasgow University – his topic is the biodiversity and conservation value of regenerating tropical forests – he has identified 55 reptiles and 55 amphibians, mainly frogs and toads, in his first few months at Manu, an impressive increase on the 20 or so of each recorded before he arrived. His amazing ability to spot camouflaged reptiles and insects opened my eyes to forest values. His personal firsts that evening were a dwarf kingfisher, deep in the swamp, and an Amazon tree boa, coiled neatly on a slim shrub. Whitworth’s pale blue eyes gleamed in the torchlight as he slid the silver snake into a bag: for a man who bred puff adders in his bedroom aged eight, it doesn’t get any better than this.

At dawn, I was on the river watching volunteers checking out massed macaws as they attacked the clay on a nearby cliff. Pecking at the sticky red earth allows them to eat insects that would otherwise harm them and the centre has a programme that monitors population, wellbeing and the reaction of birds to tourist intrusion.

After breakfast, we gathered in the project room to weigh and measure the previous night’s trophies. Last out, after a selection of frogs and an impressively bulbous cane toad, was our tree boa, dry and sensuously smooth as it wrapped itself round my arm before it was returned to the wild.

Visitors relax on the terrace of Romero Rainforest Lodge

Visitors relax on the terrace of Romero Rainforest Lodge

The next day, we moved on by boat, travelling down the Upper Madre de Dios, then up the Manu river to Romero Rainforest Lodge, Meyer’s latest project, in Manu National Park. We came on it as if by chance, grounding the boat near a gap in the wall of vegetation, then walking to a lodge camouflaged as effectively as any frog.

Opened last year, it provides comfortable accommodation for 16 guests, and is a magically isolated base for adventures in the wilderness. Currently getting here from Peru’s tourism hub, Cusco, typically involves three days of travelling, but as of March, new flights being arranged by Crees will cut this to under two hours. Guests will fly from Cusco to an airstrip at Boca Manu, from where it is 45 minutes by boat to Romero.

Where the Upper Madre de Dios is clear and fast flowing, the Manu river, which bisects the park, is swirling brown with silt from tropical storms. Submerged logs threaten to bounce our narrow boat out of the water, a tantalising prospect for caimans readily spotted lurking beneath the surface. In this environment, changing a failed engine – all river boats are obliged to carry a spare – in thigh-high fast-flowing currents is a test of nerve as well as strength.

While the Learning Centre lies in secondary forest with thick undergrowth, Manu National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site since 1987, is top-of-the-range primary forest. Dominant trees, notably the ceiba (kapok), which can grow to 50m, reach for the skies to establish a high canopy, cutting off the sunlight from much sparser growth at ground level.

This pristine area, roughly 160km by 80km, is home to some 250 “non-contacted” Machipenga, scantily-clad tribal folk who may come looking for you, though you’d be ill-advised to go looking for them. In 2011, they targeted a village girl to diversify their gene pool and killed a local man when things didn’t go their way. The weapon of choice? A bow and poisoned arrows.

On expeditions upriver, we passed basking turtles and tried to identify macaws from their calls, an art I’d supposedly mastered at the Learning Centre. We failed to spot a giant otter but a kayak, introduced since my visit, has increased the chance of sightings near breeding grounds on the banks of an oxbow lake deep in the forest.

In the interests of high-life contrast, we spent our last river night at the Manu Wildlife Centre, complete with jetty, palatial public rooms and a flotilla of thatched cabins designed to please wealthy North Americans. Its celebrated tapir hide, 3km into the jungle, is equipped with mattresses and pillows in individual mosquito netted units. Settling in with boxed suppers in pitch dark, we fell asleep to the sounds of unseen giant snouts snuffling in the swamp.

Three hours later, we woke up and walked back to the lodge in time for beer at midnight. In this environment, small – as in humming birds, fireflies and battalions of worker ants – is intriguing and unexpectedly beautiful. With the right mentors to identify them, the search for immaculately camouflaged creatures can easily become addictive.

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Details

Minty Clinch was a guest of Crees (www.crees-manu.org) and Journey Latin America (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). A five-night trip like the one described costs from £1,155 (full board, including transfers from Cusco, excursions and guiding). Journey Latin America offers a trip combining five nights in Lima and Cusco with a five-night Crees trip, from £3,993 per person (including flights from London)

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Animal magic

More meetings with conservationists

Zebras and rhinos in Kenya

Established in 1990, the Tusk Trust now has 56 conservation projects across 18 African countries and counts Prince William among patrons. In June, Cazenove and Loyd is organising a week-long trip to two remote Kenyan reserves, giving guests a chance to meet some of the trust’s experts and learn first-hand about African conservation. The trip is led by Ian Craig, the founding executive director of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

Departs 21 June, £4,045; www.cazloyd.com

Whales in Iceland

Whale watching tours are big business in Iceland (perhaps ironically, given the country’s fondness for whale meat), but tourists wishing to get a deeper understanding of the animals can attend next month’s Whalefest. The event, based at Grundarfjördur in western Iceland, combines time at sea with a series of lectures from experts, including the author and conservationist Erich Hoyt.

Departs February 17 for a week, from £768; www.discover-the-world.co.uk

Turtles in Mexico

On a week-long trip to Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, guests spend time with the researchers of Grupo Tortuguero, an organisation dedicated to protecting the area’s sea turtles. Tourists head out on to the waters of the Laguna San Ignacio to help monitor the declining population, assist turtles that have been injured by fishing nets and tag some animals so that they can be tracked.

From £2,195 per week; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk

Otters on Skye

Paul Yoxon, head of operations for the International Otter Survival Fund, takes individuals and small groups on otter-spotting days on the Isle of Skye. Participants can learn how to look for the animals in the wild and about efforts to help protect them.

£100; www.otter.org

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