The rainforest was hot, but the wind on the Tambopata River at night was a little chilly. We hunched our backs against the cold and pulled our life jackets tighter around us for warmth as the brightly painted blue and yellow speedboat carried us over the river.
By Charlotte Lawrence
The rainforest was hot, but the wind on the Tambopata River at night was a little chilly. We hunched our backs against the cold and pulled our life jackets tighter around us for warmth as the brightly painted blue and yellow speedboat carried us over the river. Our guide, Nilthon, stood at the prow, holding an enormous spotlight shaped like a megaphone.
The spotlight, powered by an enormous car battery at Nilthon’s feet, was powerful enough to illuminate both riverbanks from our position in the middle of the Tambopata. As the speedboat carried us upstream, Nilthon’s spotlight quickly scanned the rocks and trees in broad, smooth arcs, sometimes breaking the pattern to pause or return to a particular spot. He was looking for a tiny glint of bright orange or bright yellow – the tell-tale sign of an animal’s eyes reflecting the beam of light.
We were out on a nighttime caiman spotting expedition. The Tambopata was full of caimans –small, generally passive crocodilians. The Tambopata region variety of “white” caimans, as our guide called them (as opposed to Black Caimans, the largest species), ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 meters from tip to tail when full grown, with the males significantly bigger than the females. The light yellowish-brown, speckled color of the caimans allows them to blend in perfectly with the brown river water and riverbanks during the daytime. Like their alligator and crocodile cousins, however, caimans’ eyes are large and bulbous and tend to protrude above the water. By shining a flashlight and looking for an orange reflection, we were able to locate at least a dozen caimans.
Locating them was the easy part, though. In order to actually see one, we would have to get much closer. The first challenge was to avoid scaring the animal away. The guide driving the boat was very skilled at navigating the boat towards the shore as silently as possible, keeping engine use to a minimum as we approached. The first time we really got close to a caiman, the animal splashed away before anyone could get a good look. After a few more minutes and a few more glowing orange eyes spotted, Nilthon found a suitable spot for a second try. Again, the boat coasted in silently, everyone practically holding their breath. As we pulled up to shore, we could see a small shape bobbing above the water, looking a bit like a knobby log. Our guide suddenly jumped out of the boat and stepped back in a second later with a young caiman in his hands.
He held it firmly behind the neck and under its tail. The guide noted that it was a little over a meter long, not quite adult but not a baby either. Luckily, it had escaped the risk that baby caimans face of being eaten by herons. Though no one tried to put their fingers in its mouth, it wasn’t aggressive at all – unlike its crocodile relatives. It sat placidly as it was passed around from person to person, not happy, but not squirming either. As Globalist reporter Nat observed, “This caiman is probably having the worst day of its life.”
After a few minutes, we finally put the caiman back on the shore. It stood frozen for a bit – shocked, but definitely unharmed. One might still be concerned about the welfare of the Tambopata caiman population – with such tours coming through every night, there might at least be a psychological effect of the human contact. While that may be true, we can take comfort in the fact that caimans are not an endangered species. In fact, based on what we saw, they were extremely plentiful.