Saturday, 3 October 2015


2nd October

At 0430 I am awake and already the grey-necked wood-rails are singing their strange asynchronous duets from the forest. Then for a while their voices are lost in the rolling roar of the black howlers. Limpkins come next, their gravelly shrieks from every waterhole. A greyish saltator starts, always cheery, then noisy Chaco chachalacas. Soon it is day, with cattle tyrants jingling on the lawn and white-tipped doves double-hooting sonorously nearby.

It is time to get up.

At breakfast I see Layra. With her biologist-conservationist-entrepreneur partner Charlie Munn she's the owner of SouthWild, and we've spent much time talking in the past two days. Last night, while discussing cats, she asked whether I knew Amit in India. This is akin to asking whether I know Branco in Brazil or Brian in Britain. I know lots of Amits in India. The conversation quickly moved on and I thought nothing more of it.

This morning, as the saltators and the wood-rails sang me into the day, I realised which Amit she meant. Amit Sankhala is the grandson of Kailash Sankhala (director of Delhi Zoo, confidant of Indira Gandhi and founding director of Project Tiger). He is also the owner of Kanha Jungle Lodge, where I always stay in Kanha, cousin of Tarun and Dimple Bhati who run this lovely lodge, and the uncle of their charming son, my young friend, Jai who leads us on caterpillar-finding walks in the Indian jungle. Why of course I know Amit in India.

Amit is, it transpires, in Chile at the moment, with SouthWild's outfit in Patagonia. Watching pumas (as I hope to be myself next week). Here at SouthWild Pantanal today, Layra's guest as I am too, is Dania, daughter of the family which owns the property adjoining Torres del Paine where the tamest two pumas in the world are to be seen. The world of wildlife-watching and wildlife conservation, I am constantly reminded, is small. The owners of puma properties mix with the owners of jaguar properties and of tiger properties too.

Layra and I talk over breakfast, of projects in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru in which Charlie has been involved, in which I have been involved myself. I mention the photographer of a beautiful book on harpy eagles which lies nearby on the coffee table. Why of course Layra knows Pete Oxford. He and Charlie go back many years. For my part I met Pete and his South African wife Renée on an expedition to southwest Bolivia, to Reserva Natural de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, led by the park's former director, my friend Omar Rocha. We were hoping to ring James' flamingos, though in fact we were unsuccessful until our return the following year. More recently I bumped into Renée in Ecuador, at El Monte Sustainable Lodge in Mindo, which is owned by our delightful mutual friends Mariela Tenorio and Tom Quesenberry.

I was at El Monte teaching an admittedly quixotic yoga course, on a deck visited by Central American agoutis, red-tailed squirrels and psychedelic flocks of tanagers. One of my students was a Huaorani man called Otobo. From a culture which still lives deep in the Ecuadorean Amazon, he is one of the most remarkable, thoughtful and charming human beings I have ever met. His silky dark hair comes to his waist and his chest is at least twice as deep as mine. Standing as tall as my shoulder he said to me once, 'Mi papá es bajo; yo soy medio alto. My dad is short; I'm kinda tall.' On another occasion, leaving a yoga class, he came up to me saying, 'Tu yoga muy bueno. Your yoga very good.'

All of these people, and many more, were with me this morning as I made the journey from SouthWild Pantanal to Cuiabá. I am bound for São Paulo, to meet a new group of clients, including five old friends from other tours, and go on with them to Santiago de Chile, Punta Arenas and Torres del Paine.

I left SouthWild Pantanal with a group of photographers, going home to the United States. We stopped in Poconé to break the journey and I was amused to see that next to the tourist shop at which we bought drinks, a shop which proudly displayed a sign reading, in Portuguese, 'This place, and everything in it is property of Lord Jesus,' was a motel. The word motel has a quite different meaning in South America. Here it is a paid-by-the-hour hotel, with screened parking bays for anonymity, to facilitate extramarital affairs and other proscribed encounters. Chuckling, I asked the local guide travelling with the group whether I was right in my assumption. He said yes, and, with no trace of irony, told me there were many such places in Cuiabá, some of them really very good.

I love wildlife. I live for wildlife. But I love people too. It is people who teach me the world over. It is people who warmly welcome me into their homes, who feed me, who share with me their favourite places, who make me laugh, sometimes with no common language, until I hurt from laughing. I've been grateful today on my journey for all of these people, who teach me, who make me laugh.

For one new person today I am especially grateful. Don F is Peruvian but works for now at SouthWild Pantanal. Thirty years ago he was a trapper, an illegal trader in jaguar skins. When I asked whether he had ever seen a black jaguar, he told me he had killed one once in a steel snare which broke its neck. To this day he recalls his indignation that, for this real rarity, the smugglers would give him only a fraction of the price of a spotted skin. For the past twenty-five years, however, Don F, and now his family, have worked with Charlie Munn in research (in which his wildlife insight is invaluable), conservation and tourism. Don F is a man who was once an enemy of wildlife, a killer of apex predators for profit. And now he works in conservation.

For the hours I have spent at SouthWild Pantanal this week, learning from this quiet, quick-witted, kind man, I am grateful.

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