Ecuador Day 17: Sacha Lodge Day 4

Palabra del día: serpiente

When we wake up, it is once again at 5:30am. This morning, it is again raining fiercely. Droplets filter through the dense vegetation in a steady gallop. We eat breakfast, waiting for a break in the rain, and decide to go out in the canoe anyway. We will lose the whole morning if we stay tight hoping for the rain to stop.

We see several new birds, including the white-chinned jacamar and plumbeous antbird, as well as the single large black caiman which lives among the spectacled caiman of Lake Pilchicocha. These are the last pictures I get with my trusty little camera which has been with me for the last 4 years. While we are photographing in the canoe, the camera drops to the floor, and, with a loud crack!, it is no more.

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The day is still overcast when we return to the lodge proper. I am still vainly attempting to start my camera despite the Other Half’s reassurances that at least we have the big camera. We have just changed out of our wet clothing and are spending some quality time with the mosquitoes on the porch hammock when we hear our names being shouted. I open the door and peer out to find our young guide, who ecstatically tells us he has found the next animal on our wish list: an anaconda. And not just any anaconda, an adult which is currently in the employee camp.

I grab a pair of flip flops and set off after our guide, and what was one of the most exciting moments of our visit at Sacha also turns into the most frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, we love finding animals, but we also try to have a policy of leaving them in their habitat while we do so. We don’t routinely turn over stones or take the snake-handling tools out to the field, in part because we are a bit risk-averse, and in part because we don’t want to upset the natural behaviors of the local wildlife.

Anyway, we arrive to find a gorgeous gray-and-yellow healthy anaconda which is exceedingly stressed by the handling it has received. When snakes are excited or stressed and can’t get away, they puff themselves up to appear larger, they hiss, they musk, they release their vent and poop on you. They proceed on this continuum until, finally, they try to bite you.

While the snake is being held by one of the guides, I give it a quick once-over, discover the 9-foot-long snake is male (discussing with the lodge employees how to sex adult boas), and ask his handler where he found the snake. He proudly states that he dove into one of the channels as the snake was passing through. I hesitate to ask him if he also routinely goes noodling for piranha.

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By this time, a few other people join us, including another veterinarian and a family which have brought their five and nine year old daughters to the Amazonian rainforest on holiday so that they could hike through mud all day (a brilliant idea, I’m sure). The five year old has spent the better part of the time since our return screaming in the duplex cabin next to us. The nine year old accompanies her mother to see the large reptile before us, at which point (in another key time of brilliance), the snake handler offers to let the girl take a picture with the 9-foot behemoth around her neck. By this time, the snake progresses to the point of hissing on his continuum, demonstrating remarkable patience for a wild reptile.

At this point, I verbally intervene. Pardon me as I rant.

<rant>Appropriate animal handling in general should be a low-stress affair when possible. I admit, sometimes it isn’t, but it is something we should all strive to achieve both for our safety and for the animal’s overall welfare. Not only is this snake giving us the message that he is most certainly not comfortable, but he is about to be draped over a nervous, four-foot-tall, 70-pound little girl. I tell the mother in no uncertain terms that this is a pretty bad idea, as the animal is wild, unpredictable, and too large to safely drape around a child’s neck (not that I encourage anyone to have a snake wrapped around their neck). The snake handler dismisses my concerns, also iterated in Spanish, that this is not a good idea. Our naturalist guide speaks up at this point, stating that maybe the snake handler should listen to me.

Instead, the child’s mother tells me to step off, and the snake handler wraps the snake around the girl’s neck like some kind of exotic ornament. The snake immediately musks on her, defecates down her neck and chest, and then begins squeezing himself around the child. Her face is red and she is visibly shaking before the snake handler and I can get the snake from around her neck. Let me reiterate that apparently safety with a nine foot long anaconda is simply not a concern for some of the visitors and employees at Sacha Lodge.

It is at this point that I come to the realization that we have obviously chosen the wrong place to spend our money and our time. This is only reinforced when I tell the lodge employees that I am waiting with them until the snake is released. By this time, the snake is insistently trying to bend its head around to bite its handler. The other visitors have left us with our guide and the snake handler. He lets the snake go, and it quickly makes good its escape. Relieved, we head back to our cabin. Later, we learn from one of the other groups that they waited for us to leave before recapturing the snake so that more visitors could see it.

Ugh. </rant>

We are joined for our afternoon walk by three newcomers to the lodge, a couple on holiday and an older gentleman. I am in a dark, judgy mood by this point, matched by the area’s current gloomy weather. A canoe ride in the rain brings us to our latest destination: a tower wrapped around a mature kapok tree which allows views of birds in the subcanopy layer. On the way up, we see another of my target species for the trip: the rufescent tiger heron.

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The lodge has filled up, and we realize that we have been heretofore spoiled by having quiet, dedicated time looking for wildlife and goofing around on the lodge grounds. The canopy tower has a dozen other people on it from three different groups, making the small space extremely crowded. We only stay up for a short while, as, I will admit, in addition to my other vices, I am a bit claustrophobic. I need to cool off from the day, and being caged in at the top of a tree is not the best place for this. Every time I see something I try to share with the Other Half, someone is already butting up against us trying to see what I have pointed out.

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We return to the lodge in the dying light, where the couple with us reveals they had no idea that there were guided walks throughout the day, and would instead have preferred to relax in their cabin. They are late for the only night walk we have convinced our guides to give us, and we only have an abbreviated walk around lodge areas we have already visited on our own. Why? The couple don’t want to wear the provided rain boots. The older gentleman has a hard time understanding the guides and is too proud to ask for them to repeat themselves. He has not brought a flashlight with him to the area, so I give him my extra light and tell him to keep it, as he has a hard time finding his footing on the slick forest floor. The Other Half and I meander ahead of the group, looking for nocturnal reptiles and bats, but only spotting insects.

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Truly, it is a disappointing last day in the rainforest.

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