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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Into the wild: Leaves out of a Venezuelan forest

Drunken butterflies, killer frogs and the elusive jaguar – a doctorate project in the forests of tropical Venezuela turns out to be an adventure of a lifetime.

Written by Ghazala Shahabuddin | Updated: December 20, 2015 1:00:20 am
Forested island on Lago (Lake) Guri, Forested island on Lago (Lake) Guri,

I am never happier than in a forest with a plenitude of interesting creatures to be discovered. I was lucky to have the opportunity to carry out my PhD project in the forests of tropical Venezuela. Along with my colleagues from Duke University, in 1995, I found myself on a forested island on Lago (Lake) Guri, located in the north-eastern state of Bolivar in Venezuela. The creation of Lago Guri, one of the largest reservoirs in the world, had simultaneously led to forested islands whose ecology we were there to study.

A seasonally dry forest it was: trees lose all their leaves in the dry season. But just a hint of rain in the air was enough to enliven every creature, none more so than the insects. The moisture magically triggered green foliage that would rapidly envelope the forest in its wet embrace. Within a week or two, butterfly populations would explode and fill up the forest like multi-coloured confetti. The types of trees here are closely related to the ones found in deciduous forest in India, a reminder of the infinitesimally slow process of continental drift: it was only after plants evolved that the break-up of continents took place.

Soon, we discovered our camp was going to be about 40 km from civilisation, with nothing but a semi-functional radio and an unpredictable 40-HP motorboat between us and the nearest town of Guri. Meals were really nothing to write home about (yes, we actually wrote letters in those days!). Canned tuna and vegetables, preserved soups, scrambled eggs, rice and bread made up the frugal repast shared with camp mates. The occasional treat was freshly-caught fish roasted on a wood fire (rumoured to be poisonous due to the lake waters being polluted by gold mining spoils). But then it was all worth it.

The Pierella butterfly. The Pierella butterfly.

My study animals were butterflies that got drunk on rotting fruit in the forest. Rotten bananas with a dash of rum was all it took to attract several of them at a time. Their version of the happy hour lasted for three months nonstop (all the while I was there). These are creatures that do nothing else for a living, can do nothing else for a living. Sometimes, these insects binged so much, it was possible to pick them up by their wings without a struggle. An intensive collecting phase found as many as 45 species of fruit-feeders. To put this number into context, there are less than 10 species in Indian forests that do the same. The large number of strictly fruit-feeding butterflies points to the richness of the vegetation and the long wet season from June to November — that ensures some plant or the other always provides them their fruity sustenance. Among the species I studied: large iridescent-blue Morpho butterflies that patrolled their territories, checker-printed Hamadryas butterflies that emitted mysterious clicks from their tree-trunk perches, and the satiny blue-and-brown Pierella that flitted about chasing sunflecks in the forest shrubbery, never higher than a few feet above the ground.

South America is known for its incredible biodiversity. Many species found here are also bizarrely different from any found in India. For instance, take the Heliconius or longwinged butterflies. They are unusual in that they feed on protein-packed pollen of flowers along with nectar. Scientists attribute their unusually long lifespan of eight months to their pollen-feeding behaviour. Hordes of leaf-cutter ants meticulously cut out leaf fragments, transport them into their gigantic underground colonies, where they uses the leaves as fodder for cultivating fungus. The giant anteater is another interesting creature with a long snout hiding an extremely sticky tongue to catch ants. It is a benign-looking animal, with the size and look of a collie dog, but apparently, far more fierce if confronted up close — it has strong claws. The scarlet macaw, a large and impossibly colourful bird from the parrot family, is also limited to the South American realm.

The Frugivorous butterfly. The Frugivorous butterfly.

Our forest menagerie was nicely complemented by an array of Venezuelan people without whom we students would likely have perished or failed our respective PhDs. There was Cleofe, an ex-fisherman, deputed to look after our boats, who was at home on the vast Guri lake. He would break into a Spanish song at the drop of a hat. He would insist on bringing his own meat to camp, usually shark and buffalo meat, and hanging the smelly spoils up to dry, leaving us squirming in unease for days at a time. Excitable young undergraduates from Caracas University, always ready for an adventure, came to help us collect data, that is when they were not engaged in passionate political discussions. And with the coffeemaker pressed into service, charged with Venezuelan coffee, most of us were rather content. Everyone agreed that the best sounds in camp were (1) the gurgle of the coffee-maker on the fire and (2) the motor-boat starting smoothly in the morning.

The shores of the forest islands were studded with dead tree trunks above which were grassy slopes created by the periodic changing water level in the reservoir. This was a good place to sit hidden and watch wildlife go by at all times of the day. One day, I saw the elusive jaguar, a lithe cat that swam across our little bay, jumped out of the lake waters and disappeared into the jungle without so much as a backward glance. The grey-green iguanas whose punk haircut and spiny back belie their harmless nature, usually sunned themselves on the bare tree-trunks and branches, and jumped into the water with a loud splash once alarmed out of their reveries. Capybaras, the largest rodents in the world, moved about quietly in large groups, quick to sink into the water at the slightest hint of danger.

Four species of monkeys enlivened my days. Capuchin monkeys, the common species there that is surprisingly similar to the Indian rhesus macaque in its behaviour, was one of them. When encountered in the forest, monkeys would shriek and jump up and down to try to frighten you off, even breaking off sticks and flinging them at you. This could be a little disconcerting if you were trapped in a peculiar position, answering nature’s call! The dainty black-and-white saki monkey was much less agile, slow-moving and keeping to itself in thick tree cover. The flaming red-brown howler monkeys were the most elusive of all. While their booming howls reverberated through the forest in the early morning, they were usually perched on or near the treetops, curled up into a ball along with their babies and tough to see. The bearded saki monkeys, handsome in their rich brown pelage and a thick furry tail to die for, chased each other through the taller canopy forests.

One could never know what a forest walk would bring, but almost always, it was rewarding. One saw the black-and-yellow poison-arrow frog that can kill with a touch, massive land tortoises, furry black tarantulas and the gentle caiman — the South American equivalent of our Indian gharial. The fear of the famed anaconda always lurked but the giant was never once seen.

Ghazala Shahabuddin works on forestry, biodiversity issues and wildlife policy in India.

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