They are discreet and intelligent. They represent an infinitesimal risk factor, largely based on hearsay, however because of their importance in the local mythology, two words about them must be said :
One day, I had an astonishing story with a jaguar. I was crossing the forest by car at the end of the afternoon to go to a camp on the bank of the Caura River, in Venezuela, when I saw about 400m in front a big animal facing me. When it turned around to go back in the forest, I noticed that it was a feline. I started to slowly drive along the side of the road, somewhat unbelievingly, when I saw its head barely 1m away from the edge. It was a good size jaguar. I stopped the car. The animal did not move. No reaction. I opened the car door, still no reaction. The animal did not have its fur standing on end, did not make a sound, did not show the least sign of nervousness or intimidation. I then stepped out the car and placed myself in front of the door.
The animal did not utter a sound, it just observed me with its intelligent yellow eyes. I approached up to 4m before it turned its back on me and went inside the forest.
The incredible fact is that at no moment did I feel threatened. Maybe the animal had the same impression. No one believed me, of course, when I arrived at the camp. But it will remain my most beautiful experience with a wild animal.
-The puma (felis concolor)
It is the most common feline of America (from Canada to the south of Argentina) but it is more rarely seen than the jaguar for it is an extremely cautious animal. It runs away from dogs, and unlike the jaguar, it is not really feared in the Amazonian zone.
It has been proved that humans have been attacked by felines. Recently, there was talk of a puma attack in Canada.
However, in more than ten years of hikes and expeditions and thousands of hours spent in the forest, I have never met anyone who directly witnessed an attack. The stories are always hearsay (sometimes through generations!). The same small anecdotes with the same details are found all through these regions. What is certain, is that young children are certainly more exposed than adults. A trustworthy Indian friend of mine lost his 3 year old nephew, carried away in full daylight by a jaguar, a few meters away from the village.
The ''cochons bois" (Wood pig)
- It is the name given to two species of peccary in French Guyana
The largest variety, ''tajassu pécari'' is justly feared in the great rainforest!
They are animals living sometimes in very large herds. I have seen some with more than 200 individuals. They go about digging up the ground, sending out a variety of muffled snorts which can be heard from far and sound like the far-off rumble of thunder. They have a musk gland on the back and give off a foul smell, truly sickening when they are close. They have a very poor eyesight and if you place yourself against the wind, and move silently, you can get within a few meters close to them without being noticed. But it is not a very good idea. Faced with danger, they clap their impressive jaws together and let out a sort of powerful bark. Most of the time, they flee without further ado but they can turn face to face to and attack, especially during a hunt when they are exasperated by dogs. In that case, the best thing to do is to perch on a tree (it occurred to me twice ).
I saw a dog torn apart by them. An Indian I know had his Achilles' tendon torn off (last detail : they do not try to thrust their snout like our wild boar, they bite like dogs).
In short, it is better to avoid these charming animals. If you have seen some, turn around especially if you are not too athletic and don't trust your talent as climber of trees. If you fall on them by surprise and they did not see you, move away a little and make noise so as not to surprise them in order not to provoke a dangerous reaction.
In Brazil alone, there are more than 200
snakes species. Only a very small minority are truly dangerous.
The "crotalus durissus", the South American rattlesnake, is the most dangerous specie of South America, but it lives in the savannah, I will therefore not mention it here.
In the forest, the species to beware of also belong to the rattlesnake specie, however without a "rattle".
During my hikes, I have never been bitten but I have had twice to transport villagers bitten by a bothrops.
Local farmers who work in their brushwood resulting from the deforestation of a small area of the forest are particularly exposed to bites. 70 % occur below the knee, they therefore often wear high boots made of heavy leather which offer a good protection. But such equipment is very uncomfortable on long walks. In both cases mentioned above, there was a painful oedema but after serum inoculation, there was no grave consequence.
In fact, the severeness of the bite depends on many factors:
The size of the snake: the larger the snake, the greater the amount of venom.
A snake can bite "dry", that is without using its "foldable" venom fangs.
Truly less frequent: the bushmaster
It also belongs to the rattlesnake variety, it is the largest poisonous snake of America. The record length is 4m but 2m long specimen are more often seen. It is a nocturnal snake and not very aggressive, its venom is less active than that of the bothrops, but because of its large size, it can inject a large quantity of it. A true story, which occurred in Saul in French Guyana, illustrates both the carelessness of certain people and the relatively peaceful character of this snake :
A young soldier having found a large snake coiled around on the trail reported it to his sergeant who asked him to describe the animal, which he did. The sergeant, without bothering to go see for himself, declared that it was a harmless boa constrictor and authorized the recruit to go get the snake. Full of confidence, the young foolhardy brought back the animal by putting it around his neck, then his buddies did so also. Unfortunately, the so-called boa finally got tired of all these manipulations, let out one of its 4cm fangs and bit the soldier's finger. The latter had to be evacuated to Cayenne. It was a lachesis muta. I personally saw pictures of the soldier with the snake around his neck!
Rattlesnakes represent the ultimate stage of the snake evolution : they possess nasal holes which function as thermal captors allowing them to detect a variation of one degree within a radius of 10 meters. It is a fearful weapon to localize their prey.
The coral snakes (micrurus sp) are rather small, shy and beautifully coloured
Not aggressive if you do not try to catch them, they do not represent a true danger in spite of their venom, a fearful neurotoxic, which can be deadly. They have a very small mouth with small fixed fangs.
An anecdote to confirm their lack of aggressivity : during a night walk in Guyana, the person who was behind me warned me that I was walking on something that moved. I had the foot on a coral snake!
The animal was not even trying to bite me.
However, it does not mean that you can do anything you like, as the misadventure of the Saul soldier shows. Even if you are used to snakes, do not manipulate the poisonous kinds !
In fact, one must not confuse two notions :
The potential danger that a poisonous snake represents because of the virulence of its venom.
The specific aggressivity of the animal
|Notice that certain grass snakes are called "opistoglyphes", that is they possess venom fangs in the back of their mouth and can cause light to serious poisoning. It is the case with the spectacular "creeper snakes" (oxybelis sp). Be wary.|
All the stories of deadly "minute snake" and "banana snake" letting themselves fall on people, thereby forcing you to wear a large brim hat, are pure inventions. In general, all the truly dangerous snakes of the Amazonian zone move about slowly. They can snap in a fraction of a second, but their crawling is slow. The snake escaping at full speed in front of you will most often be a harmless grass snake .
To finish with snakes, my most dangerous personal experience occurred in the garden of a large hotel in Sri Lanka! By stepping over a hedge, I walked on the head of a snake which slapped my leg with its tail. I was lucky for, when I followed to identify it, it rose and opened its hood : it was a cobra, a cousin of the coral snake, but much more aggressive!
|South America is a land much favoured by tarantulae. Certain species, like "Theraphosa Leblondi, of the Guyanas and "Theraphosa Apophysis" of Venezuela, can have an impressive size and reach a span of 30cm. The largest kinds live under ground, in holes, or sometimes under stones or dead tree trunks. They are sedentary and nocturnal, you will thus have little chance of finding one in your hammock, except if your buddies want to play a dirty trick on you (it has happened!).|
A more or less important layer of web at the edge of their hole is an indication of their presence. You can try to make them come out by sliding a twig, about 30cm long, in the hole. The animal will attack it, cling to it with its fangs and, by pulling slowly, you might manage to make it come out. That is how Yanomani Indians of Southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil catch them. They then grill them between two sticks and eat the inside of the legs and thorax.
When bothered, they have two types of defense:
They can arch their back, straighten up their first pairs of legs largely opening their venom hooks (more than 1cm long on the largest species). It is a clear warning.
They can also rapidly scratch their abdomen with one of their hind legs, bombarding you with scratchy hair. The effect is the same of itching powder.
I have never personally heard of a tarantula biting. The effects of venom on humans are not well known.
They are also tree-dwelling tarantulae that make webs in the shape of a tube.
They are also nocturnal and hunt insects and other small animals in the vicinity of their webs.
A certain times of the year, the males move around looking for females, and you meet them often inside camps, causing panic totally unrelated to the danger that they represent.
The tree-dwelling tarantulae are generally covered with long hair that makes them look like small soft toys, often delicately coloured.
Certain species of the Amazonian zone, like the "Avicularia Metallica" are very tame
In general, an animal never attacks without having first made a mimic to alert and thus discourage the eventual aggressor. This rule holds true for most mammals, reptiles as well as spiders.
If one of them raises its legs and brings out its fangs, don't try to manipulate it, it is in your interest!
|But there exists a spider
that you have to beware of in the Amazonian zone, it does not belong to
the tarantula category. It is a specie that look like the spiders that we
know in Europe, but larger.
Nocturnal, the "phoneutria" belongs to the "Ctenidae" or wandering spiders family, that is they take shelter where they can after their nocturnal rounds, under a piece of wood, in the hole of a tree or eventually in your shoes. They are aggressive, do not hesitate to use their hooks and can even advance by small leaps. They can be found in large numbers in certain places.
Like other animals, they like to take refuge in dry places after heavy rains. Once, I found one in a fold of my rucksack
Their venom, a powerful neurotoxic, much resembles that of the "black widow" (latrodectus mactans) but they are much larger!
It is important to recognize them.
Certain species have a very active venom.
They are shy and nocturnal, but the danger comes from their tendency to choose your shoes, bags or clothes to take refuge, as is the case with the phoneutria.
One day, wanting to put my shirt on, I saw that a small specimen had hidden in one of the sleeves. It is thus necessary to watch out during bivouacs.
I was once stung by one of the most fearsome species, Tityus cambridgei : it is a specie which lives on tree bark and I had put my hand on it, during the night. I immediately felt an intense ache which subsided only after a few hours, having spread throughout the arm.
Next day, I had headaches and nausea. That was all. However, I weigh 85 kg, the consequences for a young child can be much more serious.
Certain batrachians secrete poisonous substances.
Ants and Wasps
While not being really dangerous, the animals
which will give you most problems, especially during bivouacs, are in fact ants
I think I already mentioned that the most practical way of camping in the rainforest is to hang your hammock between two trees then hang some ropes holding a plastic sheet which will protect you from the rain.
A small parenthesis concerning another
danger that causes many more victims than animals do in the forest : falling
branches and trees. Trees often have shallow roots, because of the thinness
of the fertile layer, or else they are horizontally rooted with buttress roots.
They are often infested with termites which sometimes completely undermine them
from the inside, while the trunk still looks healthy.
They are also considerably loaded down with the weight of creepers and epiphytic plants. It is thus necessary to carefully examine trees around your bivouac, especially during the rainy season : the soil is loose and trees are weighed down by humidity. The passage of large storm clouds, which generate strong winds, cut down even the giants of the forest
Camping in the great rainforest has two specific characters :
The extreme humidity. It is difficult to
make a fire, especially during the rainy season. It is necessary to choose dead
wood, even if it is humid, green wood gives mostly smoke.
-The invading fauna :
The South American ANTS are the bane of the bushman.
|Finally, if at the foot
of a tree on which you have hung your hammock you have noticed a horizontal
opening in the soil, right against the basis of the trunk, move out rapidly!
It probably is an anthill of "paraponera", one of the most
fearsome inhabitant of the forest. This animal, more than 2cm long, inflicts
particularly painful stings (it possesses a dart like a wasp). It is called
in fact the "24 hour ant" in Venezuela, because of the persistence
of the ache of the sting, and is also called "bullet ant" in English
literature. I do not know why they called "Flemish ants" in French
Guyana. Most probably after a Walloon explorer was stung.
I was stung several times : the last time around 10 o'clock in the morning, at the calf, during a walk : at 6 o'clock in the afternoon, the pain was still as strong and was largely spreading in the Achilles' heel. It only subsided after some codeine. Natives use the sting of the paraponera to test their resistance to pain and during certain adolescent initiation ceremonies, like the famous "marake" of the Wayana Indians of French Guyana or Suriname.
In Venezuela, I also saw Indians voluntarily submitting to stings to ease sadness or depression
Inspect carefully, therefore,
the foot of the trees around your bivouacs. These insects being nocturnal,
I don't need to add that their irruption in your hammock in the middle
of the night will, at best, signify a sleepless night.
Avoid walking barefoot at night. Certain species of underground termites often move at the surface, and while not being poisonous, the "soldiers" have particularly sharp mandibles. These insects also give out a strong lemony odour .
To end with ants, you will most probably encounter "army ants" or "fourmis légionnaires" in Guyana (also called "hunting ants" in Spanish).
They do not have anthills, but move around in armies, launching true raids. Nearly blind (the African magnans are totally so), they communicate through chemical signals. When a prey is discovered, they rapidly converge towards it. They feed on small animals, insects, small reptiles, etc. They are totally incapable of cutting up a living man, a myth of the sensational fiction ("Papillon" for example).
The Amazonian species belong to the "eciton" family which includes several species of variable sizes. You might hear that Indian tribes use the long mandibles of the soldiers as clasps to close wounds.
I must say that this story has always provoked the hilarity of the Indians to whom I told it
In "bivouac", they cling together forming a ball in a hole or under a stump. I once found such a ball in Brazil while pulling up a dead trunk.
The ball had the size of a soccer ball. These ants quickly spread on the ground, causing panic among a multitude of small animals. They sometimes invade your bivouac. In that case, stay aside and leave them alone, they are just passing through. Don't try to change their course by spreading water or even petrol on them as I have seen it being done. You will only succeed in exasperating them and slowing down their retreat!
One night in Guyana, I was sleeping in a "carbet" or hut on piles. I woke up with a peculiar impression. I came down from my hammock and lit my lamp. Nothing in front, but when I turned around, I saw an extraordinary spectacle : the soil of the camp was advancing, on a strip at least 30 meters wide! I carefully unhooked my hammock and settled farther along. The next day, the ants had disappeared!
Certain birds follow columns of army ants (formacariides, belonging to the passiform family). They do not feed on the ants themselves but on the small animals fleeing in front of them. Certain butterflies also follow the birds in order to feed on their droppings!
There are many species.
The biggest ones are not the most aggressive : the giant pepsis heros is a magnificent, solitary, metallic blue animal, with salmon coloured wings whose span can exceed 10. It looks for large tarantulas on the ground, by their smell. It plunges its long dart in the thorax, to put them to sleep, then lays its eggs on their back. . The larvas develop, slowly devouring the spider
Also avoid putting a stick in hollow trees, you could have interesting surprises
Needless to say, if you are allergic to insect bites, always have some antihistamine in your first aid kit ..
The aggressivity of ants and wasps is feared by all in the rainforest.
Certain species use this fear to protect themselves :
Orioles and oropendula, birds which construct their purse-shaped nests in isolated trees, tend to make them near wasp nests.
The only food of the caterpillar belonging to the heliconius family are the passiflora or passionflower type creepers. The latter have developed a defense against the caterpillars: they produce a nectar that attracts ants and wasps.
This long chapter on dangerous animals answers the need to question certain widely accepted ideas and give you some safety advice. The rainforest must be approached with respect.
I am sure that you have noticed that in most cases, the Amazonian fauna is more likely to cause you disagreements rather than expose you to real danger if you yourself are a little careful..
I can assure you that in more than 10 years of experience I have never personally witnessed a serious accident caused by an animal.