Dario the animal caller

Text Dos Winkel and Stephan Austermühle

Photography Dos and Bertie Winkel

The jumping point for our trip to the southern most rainforest of Peru was the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, situated at the junction of the rivers Madre de Dios and Tambopata at an altitude of 250 masl.  Founded a century ago, it has held a significant position as a rubber boomtown, logging center, and more recently a center for gold and oil prospectors.  It is also important for jungle crops such as Brazil nuts and coffee. The various commercial enterprises centered in Puerto Maldonado have crowned it the most valuable port and capital of the department of Madre de Dios.  In reality, it is an unpleasant, fast growing town with a busy frontier feel and a population of about 37,000.  And furthermore, due to the logging industry, the jungle around Puerto Maldonado has been mostly cleared.

Here we met the boat driver and the cook who were to accompany us during the following week of travel.  After loading all the provisions and equipment into our  huge motorized canoe “The Black Caiman”, we began our long journey down the Madre de Dios River.

It took us a whole day by river to reach our destination: the river “Heath”.  The river constitutes not only the border between Peru and Bolivia but also the southern limit of the Peruvian National Park Bahuaja-Sonene and the northern limit of the Bolivian National Park Madidi.

The further we traveled away from Puerto Maldonado, the more intact the forest became. Even though the border region and the Heath River form a very remote area, environmental problems are already present and increasing. The reports of gold findings in the Madre de Dios River caused a gold rush like invasion of individual miners searching the river bed.

We are a group of cameramen, two boats men, my wife Bertie and daughter Femke. Our goal is to make a television documentary about the rainforest in this part of Peru.

We set out traveling upstream on the Rio Heath, taking one river coil after another, asking ourselves when the last one would come until, finally, a little man came into view standing on the Peruvian riverside. It was the man we had traveled all this way to see this week: Dario, the animal caller.

Dario is the son of a colonist family and has spent his life working as a guide and hunter in the rainforest. In order to be a good hunter, Dario had to start observing and learning about the forest as a child; spending days walking through the forest alone.  Now, in his late sixties, he has accumulated an unbelievable amount of knowledge of the forest.

When younger, Dario used his knowledge to become a good hunter. Patiently he observed his preys’ behavior and learned to imitate the voices of the animals. He learned to scream like a jaguar or a black caiman, to call the giant river otters or monkeys and to whistle like the birds.  He became incredibly successful, estimating himself to have killed some 180 jaguars and an uncountable numbers of animals from other species in order to sell their fur.

However, he himself started seeing the effects of his activities.  He found less and less of the beautiful creatures that he had hunted and yet at the same time so admired.  He decided, therefore, to change sides, quit hunting and work as a park guard. Now he plans to become engaged in ecotourism in order to show the beautiful rainforest to tourists and serve the survival of nature.

At around noontime, we set out to travel further upstream with the boat.  One of the species of the rainforest we wanted to capture on film were the famous and exquisitely colorful Makaws. In order to do so, Dario had searched for a “Makaw lick”, a place where the river cuts through a layer of mineral rich soil and the birds come to feed every morning.

For a long time it was a mystery to scientists why the birds ate this clay, until they discovered that the parrot’s food, and that of many other rainforest animals, was heavily poisoned.  In order to protect themselves from predators, rainforest plants have concentrated alkaloids and tannins in their leaves and seeds.  Suckling on one of these plants would result in a prompt itching, burning and swelling of the lips.

In order to cope with this problem, the “flying nutcrackers” have learned to eat clay containing minerals that neutralize the chemicals and protect their intestines, as well as prohibiting the alkaloids to enter their bloodstream.

When arriving at the lick, we began to recognize how difficult it would be to photograph the birds. Taking the pictures from the other – Bolivian – side of the river was not an option, being much too far away, so we decided to use the natural vegetation directly under the lick to build our blinds. We located some holes under the bushes about 10 meters away from the lick just big enough for one person to sit in without stretching out their feet.  On the other side of the river, we cut some Caña brava plants (palm reed) to reinforce the natural cover, hoping the birds would be unable to see the team hidden under it. However, before waiting for the birds, there was another shy animal we hoped to find.

Dario had already scouted a place that could be used as a natural blind to photograph the Taricaya (Podocnemis unifilis) or Sideneck Turtle.  So named because they bend their neck sideways as opposed to horizontally, like other species, when withdrawing their heads into the shell, bending their necks in an S-shape.  Turtles appeared on the planet some 300 million years ago, during the Age of Reptiles, and have undergone little change since then. Protected by their shells from predators, Sideneck turtles spend much of their day feeding on aquatic vegetation and basking in the sun.

Right in front of our natural blind was a place where the turtles climbed everyday to sunbathe on a log in the water.  Even though well protected, the turtles have extremely fine hearing and disappear back into the water with enormous speed upon the slightest suspicious sound.  After waiting silently an hour or so, our patience was rewarded as several turtles climbed out of the water onto the log.  Soon a swarm of butterflies began to flutter overhead, taking advantage of the opportunity to feed on the turtles’ salty eye and nostril juices.

Although marvelous scenes such as this can still be seen frequently in the southern Peruvian rainforest, the turtles are in danger.  Human consumption of their eggs, which are laid in holes in sandy riverbanks in order for the sun to breed them, has drastically reduced their population and may lead to their endangerment.  In order to conserve the species, Dario became involved in a project executed by ProNaturaleza and INRENA in cooperation with the Ese’eja Indians to breed a certain percentage of the eggs on artificial beaches and then release the baby turtles into the river.

Motivated by our success, we returned to our blind under the makaw lick right before sunrise the next morning.  Normally at around six o’clock in the morning the show starts; huge flocks of Mealy Parrots (Amazona  farinose) and Blue-headed Parots (Pionus menstruus) are approaching the tree tops on top of the lick, noisily hopping  from one branch to the others. Then, some 30 minutes later the first ones are flying down into the licks and soon the clay wall is covered with huge clusters of green and blue patches of color. After about an hour of noisy entertainment the parrots start out for a day of foraging in the Amazons treetops and for a short while it gets silent again.

About half an hour after the parrots had left, the first couple of makaws showed up and perched themselves on the uppermost branches of the trees above the lick. It took about an hour more before a number of makaws (30-40) came together.  Some of them started flying rounds over the site, carefully monitoring any movement on the ground and when returning to the trees they landed on the lower branches, slowly moving closer to the lick. This continued for an hour more or so and then within one second of the first birds making their descent to the clay wall, something scared them away. Like a cloud, they all flew up and disappeared, squawking loudly across the river and back into the forest.

The birds have good reason to be careful. Uncountable numbers of parrots are caught each year, all around the world, both legally and illegally and sold as pets.  Japan and the United States comprise the largest markets, importing up to 350,000 parrots each year.  Some of the 19 Makaw species, like the Blue-throated makaw (Ara glaucogularis) and the Hyacinth makaw (Anodorhynchus hyazinthinus) have been brought to the brink of  extinction and made the listings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).  The Spix`s makaw (Cyanopsitta spixi) has only 20 individuals left worldwide – all in captivity.  Therefore, the export of Makaws has been forbidden in Peru since 1973.

Besides direct capture, environmental destruction poses another problem for the survival of the species. Makaw couples stay together for their entire lives, but out of 100 couples only 10 to 20 reproduce each year, due to a lack of nesting space.  Within 2 square kilometers, scientists discovered only one or two tree holes, which being big and dry enough, were suitable nesting sites.  After reproduction in December, the female lays two eggs.  While breeding, the females stay weeks in their hole, fed by the male.  The female is unable to leave the nest, as she must prevent the eggs from cooling and protect  them against predators like Tucans.

The first young hatches out about five days before the second one, and already much bigger than its younger sibling, it competes more successfully for food from the parents and is regularly the only one that survives and grows up. With such a low reproduction rate, it is crucial for the survival of the species that there be, as it’s the limiting factor for reproduction, sufficient tree holes.  Taking away a low percentage of seemingly useless trees may wipe out an entire population of these brightly-colored birds, important disseminators themselves of many rainforest seeds. Removing a natural macaw-generating site may take the rainforest hundreds of years to replace it.

For us however, the next few days of waiting for the Macaws, became an extreme test of our patience.  The second morning the birds were scared away by a boat of indigenes traveling noisily upstream and the third day the Macaws were sitting on the top of the blind, just some two meters above my head, but decided against flying down to the wall.

Quite frustrated, we used the afternoons to look for other species to take pictures of, hoping we would be luckier the next morning.  Meanwhile, Dario brought us to a beautiful lake.  As the rivers wound their way over the Amazon’s flat basin, portions of their snakelike coils were sometimes cut off and isolated, forming oxbow-shaped

lakes, or cochas. These former river channels may either remain connected to their parent rivers or be in the process of gradually drying out. Cochas are especially rich in nutrients and have extremely high concentrations of fish which attracts huge numbers of birds  and other species, like the Giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), the largest, rarest and most formidable predatory otter in the world.

Up to 1.8 meters long and weighing as much as 32 kilos, Giant river otters were at one time commonly seen swimming throughout the Amazon’s innumerable rivers and lakes. However, intense hunting pressures created by the international fur trade during the middle of this century took an enormous toll on the species, reducing a population once numbering somewhere in the hundreds of thousands to a current population of only a few thousand individuals.  Between 1946 and 1973, for example, over 247,000 Giant river otter skins were exported from Peru.  With an estimated population of fewer that 100 individuals, the Manu National Park may protect the largest Giant river otter population in the world. Along the river Heath so far only two groups have been sighted by scientists.

When arriving at the lake, Dario started to make a very strange noise, which one might think would scare away the wildlife forever, but he almost immediately got a response in a similarly strange way from the other side of the lagoon. Then we saw them approaching, a group of five Giant river otters swimming in close formation straight in our direction and answering each of Darios calls in a chorus of Donald-Duck-like cackling voices.  They came as close as an astonishing six meters to the beach, while consistently answering Darios screams, imitations of an intruding male otter, which were obviously getting them quite riled up.

As we did not want to upset the otters too much, Dario stopped provoking them and they became relaxed immediately, but remained close to us starting to fish.  This of course allowed us a chance to catch some incredible shots of them feeding. Giant river otters commonly eat up to 4 kilos of fish each day.  When hunting, the otters swim together along the edge of a lake, diving for 10-20 seconds while chasing fish underwater. Long whiskers on the tops, bottoms, and sides of their heads allow them to detect currents and thus to chase their prey despite the lake’s notoriously murky water. Once captured we saw the otters clasping the fish with their paws, eat first the fish’s head, then rip, crush and swallow the rest of its bones, scales and insides.

Although they spend the majority of their time in and around a single preferred lake, Giant river otters also travel from one lake to another seeking out untapped reservoirs of fish. The otters sleep in underground dens near the shores and females give birth to an average of four cubs.  During the day, they spend a considerable amount of time grooming one another, which contributes to group cohesion, an important factor for the avoidance of fights within the group as well as cooperation amongst themselves in order to hunt and defend against predators. The Giant river otters’ unusual group-like existence may be a behavior that evolved eons ago as a defense against their most ancient enemy – the giant Black Caiman.

The Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) is closely related to reptiles, which inhabited the Mesozoic era 200 million years ago.  They are grouped in the subclass Archosauria – the same subclass to which belonged the now extinct dinosaurs and pterosaurs.  Since one branch of archosaurs later evolved into birds, caimans, ironically, are considered to be more closely related to birds than they are to snakes, turtles or lizards. Once abundant throughout the Amazon, the Black Caiman was nearly hunted to extinction in this century when tens of thousands of its skins were exported to the garment industry abroad.

In order to cross over the lakes surface, we borrowed one of the Ese`eja`s canoes and hauled it from the river, over land, to the lake. Then, at night, Dario started calling them. After a while we heard a huge caiman answering in a deep voice and went off in search of it with the boat.  Dario, while calling the caiman, paddled and directed the boat.  I felt a little uncomfortable sitting in a small, flat indigenous canoe, only a few centimeters above water level that could sink with any wrong movement.  In the end, though, we wanted to take pictures, so we concentrated on the flashlight that searched the water’s surface for the eyes of caimans, reflecting light like red glowing coals.

Then we saw  them. Without further sound we tried to approach, from time to time checking with the flashlights to see if the eyes were still there, but before coming too close, the two reddish points disappeared and the chase started anew. After several trials we finally made it. There, only a meter away, a medium-sized caiman floated on the surface, staring at us as we stared back, breathless and mystified, at a creature who carries on the ancient legacy of his ancestors.

The next day, after another frustrating morning at the makaw lick, we hiked along the rainforest, when suddenly we heard a sound somewhere in the leaves above our heads. Dario started another one of his strange sounding calls and sure enough, the sounds came closer. It was a whole group of Brown capuchin monkeys. They jumped around on the branches above us and curiously spied down at us. It was impossible to say who was more amazed by this encounter: us dazzled by the incredible reaction of the animals to Dario’s calls, or the monkeys wondering about the strange machines that were pointing at them while making clicking sounds.

Upon returning from the lake to the base camp, we found a group of Capibaras feeding on the riverside. The Capibara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), otherwise known as “Ronzoco”, is the largest living rodent in the world attaining a weight of up to 65 kilos. These large, pig-like rodents sometimes travel in herds of several dozen of more.  Widely prized by Indians and colonists for their meat, they are normally diurnal, but have become nocturnal in areas where they are heavily hunted.

Our last night had come and sitting around the fire near Darios house we discussed what to do the following morning at the Makaw lick.  Our moods were down.  I was of the opinion that we were too close and too many in the blinds.  In the end I decided to use this last morning before returning to Puerto Maldonado and only leave me and Femke together in a blind, about 15 meters away from the lick; I would take the photographs and Femke would use the video camera.

The next morning, we were sitting silently in the boat while traveling upstream, hoping for a miracle.  But…nothing happened…!

It is 11.30.  The sun is already high up in the sky.  Femke and I are fried by now and still the macaws haven’t come down.  Then, the first pair of macaws left the area…!

We waited another two hours and than suddenly they came down.  We couldn`t believe it.  In our last 30 minutes, the macaws came down to the lick as though they did not want to let us leave without a picture and I was able to shoot some of the most incredible close-ups of wild Macaws I ever taken, while Femke did a great job filming them.

Back at the base camp, everybody was dancing for joy.  So many hours of waiting silently without movement, half eaten by insects, and finally we had succeeded.  These had been some really incredible days for everybody, the most impressive thing surely having been with Dario.  This humble man reads the rainforest like a book and by the end of the week we all felt very privileged that he had opened and read to us just a few of it’s miraculous pages.

The television documentary that we made during this trip has won:



eps. Dario, the animal caller

Gold Camera Award in the 36th international competition of the

U.S. International Film & Video Festival, Los Angeles



eps. Jungle Worlds

Bronze World Medal in the 45th international competition of

The New York Film Festival

in the category Environment & Ecology – television documentary