Maddie Sees a Caiman in the Amazon Rainforest

“I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now, I realize I am fighting for humanity” – Chico Mendes (Brazilian rubber tapper and activist).
As a part of my program, I got the incredible privilege of visiting a portion of the
Amazon Rainforest located on the eastern border of Ecuador during my second month of classes. When I learned that we would be spending a week there at a renowned research station during my orientation session, I was both thrilled and terrified. On the one hand, the Amazon Rainforest…I mean, wow. Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity? Not only is it one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the entire world, but it is also one of the most elusive. It’s not every day that you get the chance to visit.
And yet, on the other hand, bugs. Humidity. Caimans. Bull sharks. Need I go on?
After hearing about our future field trip, I ruminated about what it would be like for the
next few weeks. I hadn’t packed well for an excursion to the Amazon. I had no mosquito
repellent and practically no dry-fit clothes with me. I didn’t even have a functioning backpack (mine had broke right when I arrived). There was a lot that I was going to have to do to prepare beforehand, both physically and mentally. I hoped that, when the time came, I would be ready.
* * *
On an early Monday morning in February, we met at the front of the university to catch
our bus to the airport. Because the research station was so remote, there was no easy way to reach it. We learned that we were going to have to take a plane to a small town, then a bus, then an hour-long boat ride, then a two-hour-long bus, then one final two-hour-long boat ride. In short, we would be traveling there all day in all different types of vehicles, and I was pissed. Funny enough, the trip passed really quickly. I made jokes with my classmates on the first flight, fell asleep during the bus rides, and was so captivated by the water and animals that I completely forgot about the length of time we spent cramped on those small boats. Before I knew it, we were docking and hiking up a flight of damp, wooden stairs on our way to our cabins at the station.
As I did the math in my head, I realized that, despite leaving on Monday, we would only
be spending three full days in the forest—Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Both Monday and Friday would be dedicated entirely to travel. In my mind, this could either be really good or really bad. If I hated it, I would only have to wait three more days before I would be back in civilization. On the other hand, given that we had a very limited amount of time, I had no idea how many activities our professors were going to try to cram into our short windows of daylight each day. After a hearty meal of burritos, we gathered in one of the classrooms in the research station to discuss the week’s schedule. Our professor, an American-born ichthyologist with a strong southern accent, shared that we would be spending some time exploring the forest, some time fishing along the shores of the local river, and some time actually swimming. He assured us that there would be no lack of activities or things to do and that we would be learning throughout. Once he finished his spiel, he bid us goodnight, and we all headed back to our cabins, suddenly exhausted from the long day of (ironically) sitting.
The following morning, we woke up early for breakfast and then promptly divided into
two groups. One would be hiking with a guide in the forest, examining the species present,
while the other would spend some time canoeing in a nearby pond. After a short period of time, the two groups would switch activities. I was in the hiking group first, but, truthfully, all I wanted to do was canoe. Although part of me was afraid, secretly, I really really hoped to see a caiman while out on the water. Before departing from Quito, our professor had asked each of us to research a specific Amazonian species. I had chosen two species of caimans and drafted a quick presentation about their characteristics, habits, and biological impacts. While they frightened me (who feels comfortable when next to alligators?), the thought of being close to a wild one was also exhilarating.
When I finally got my turn to be out on the water, I asked our professor if it was likely
that we would see a caiman. I knew that they tended to like lentic, murky waters where they could easily hide though it didn’t really matter since they were excellent at camouflage. I wanted to know the odds. My professor turned to me and said that although it was true that caimans liked small, swampy ponds like the one we were currently in, he still wasn’t sure if we would see any. A few decades back, he explained, poachers began to hunt the local caiman populations, wanting them for their skin. They had hunted them so voraciously that their numbers had dwindled drastically. Though they had begun to repopulate the area during the pandemic, there were still not nearly as many as there once were. Moreover, the ones still around were incredibly wary of humans, which, I guess, made sense. I was taken aback. Here I was worrying about the caimans hurting me when, in reality, my species was their greatest threat to their peaceful existence. My professor’s words sat with me as we continued to wade. After an hour spent on the water, we still hadn’t seen a single caiman.
As it turned out, I would only see one caiman on that entire trip.
It happened as we were on Thursday afternoon, as we were on our way to swim. We were speeding down the Tiputini River (the local river in that section of the forest) in a motorized canoe when one of our naturalist guides suddenly motioned for the captain to stop. He pointed in the distance, waving his arms excitedly and exclaiming that there was a caiman. We all turned our heads and moved to the other side of the boat, tipping it slightly. I had no idea what he was talking about. There was nothing there, just a drooping tree branch over a log in the water. The captain reversed the boat, slowly. Our guide told him (in Spanish) to move in a way that would not frighten the creature. After all, they were easy to scare. As we edged closer, I focused all of my attention on the spot where he had originally pointed. Suddenly, I saw it. There, under the tree branch, was a slim head peeking out of the river’s surface, the same color as the river with a bright yellow eye. I was ecstatic! I had been searching for a caiman the entire week and now, here one was! I couldn’t believe our luck. All around me, my classmates shifted to get better glimpses or to capture better shots on their cameras. Then, as quick as it had appeared, it was gone. We had gotten too close. Out of natural instinct, the caiman fled from its most dangerous predator.
Though I hoped I would see another one (maybe even while swimming), I didn’t see any more caimans during that trip. Still, I refused to give up hope and, due to my diligent searching, I was able to spy some other impressive animals, including monkeys, macaws, capybaras, etc. But no more caimans.

An image taken of the one caiman we saw (M. niger) while traveling along the Tiputini River.

Throughout the week, our professor had encouraged us to consider what we would want
to research for our final project. According to the syllabus, each student would have to craft a short, academic paper based on one animal they had seen in the rainforest. Once we had picked an animal, it was our job to come up with a research question and argument and then back them both up with evidentiary support. Before we even returned to Quito, I knew that I wanted to continue studying caimans. While most people get tired after copious research on one specific subject, I was just getting started. I decided to write an informative essay on the harsh reality of the diminishing caiman populations. I wanted to highlight the absurdity of our intense phobias of these creatures in juxtaposition to the actual reality of their having once been considered an endangered species due to anthropogenic involvement.1

To me, it seemed ludicrous that we were so afraid of these animals when we posed much more of a threat to them than they did to us. After some internet snooping, I was able to back up my opinions with data. One study I found indicated that one community of caimans in Ecuador had decreased by over 50% in two decades.2

Another shared that caiman populations were at risk of extinction due to various anthropogenic activities, such as mining-related incidents, lead contamination, habitat destruction, deforestation, hunting, etc.3

Clearly, our presence was the problem, not theirs.

This image was taken from the aforementioned study (Ortiz et al., 2020), depicting the areas around Brazil where
caiman populations are at risk. As can be seen above, locations where the Brazilian caimans are in potential danger
are marked with circles, and locations where there is a significant concern are marked with triangles.

I ended my assignment with an open-ended question about how we were going to address
this issue. Sure, caimans and humans don’t have a perfect relationship, and there are some (incredibly rare) caiman attacks that take place. Still, their well-being should concern us much more than whether or not they will attack us, which is not very likely. Like sharks, if caimans were to go completely extinct, that occurrence would cause a ripple effect much more drastic than many of us can foresee. Many species depend on them, and we depend on many species. Thus, by the transitive property, we, too, depend on the survival of caimans. Though deforestation and drilling for oil are definitely sustainability concerns when it comes to the Amazon, the extinction of existing species also poses a large risk to the forest’s health though it receives much less publicity. Saving the Amazon should absolutely be a priority for conservationists, but if we don’t also focus on the fauna, there may not be animals left to inhabit the forest. In my opinion, this was the most important lesson I learned during my week in the jungle—that all animals, even the scary ones, deserve our love, attention, and dedication.


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