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Wildlife watching in Venezuela’s Los Llanos

After travelling up from Manaus into Venezuela via a stopover in Santa Elena and spending two solid days travelling including 12 hours at a bus station I was thrilled to be in Merida.

Merida is a city on the Western side of Venezuela close to the border with Colombia. There were three reasons that I was excited to be in Merida, one was to visit Los Llanos, two was to go paragliding and three was to eat at the Guinness record-breaking ice cream shop Heladeria Coromoto.

At the heladeria, you can get cheese and ham ice cream as well as many other weird and wonderful flavours. I got a scoop of cola flavour and one of Ninja turtle which I think was pistachio. I was disappointed by the flavours but glad that I came.

The next one to tackle was parapente aka paragliding, as I soared over the rocky terrain I remember feeling very free despite being strapped to a burly Venezuelan man. Parapente offers a laid-back alternative to skydiving (although I highly recommend the adrenaline rush) as you actually have time to relax and enjoy the scenery as you sail along, you also don’t get thrown about by the wind quite so much. It’s definitely the closest you can get to being able to fly like a bird and we drifted alongside a seagull.

I booked my Los Llanos trip fresh from parapente and set off the next day with my fellow tour mates who were a nice Swiss family and an English tour guide. The tour was 3 days and nights and we stayed at a ranch in the savannah. The ranch that we stayed in was well up my street and was next to a lovely big swamp full of caiman, capybara and piranhas with the odd turtle emerging for a sunbathe in the daytime. It was like living in a wildlife documentary and I bloody loved it, except for the fact that they had a young ocelot for a pet.

It was a gorgeous creature as all cats are, and I had a great appreciation for the species as we had a margay at the rescue centre which is a smaller but equally beautiful version of the ocelot. They found the ocelot abandoned in a tree and brought it home, which may seem honourable but its mother probably left it there to go out hunting.

Another undeniable problem was that keeping a free range big cat is dangerous and it was getting worse as it got older. It regularly used to stalk me when I went to the bathroom and watch me whilst I was in there as a game. The humour of this bizarre situation was slightly lost on me as I had spent a decent portion of my trip being attacked and chased by various jungle animals.

The ironic thing about the rescue of this big cat (Carla to use her given name) was that the farmers had spent decades ridding the plains of jaguars, pumas and ocelots, to the point that the tour guide had only ever seen one cat in all the years that he had been taking tours to the ranch. The reason for this is so that farmers can graze their cattle without losses, the amount of prey is also reduced for the cats and as other species deplete so do their numbers.

A different ranch had a ‘pet’ anteater which they had found as a baby probably waiting for its mother to return and took it back to their ranch. As the ranch was constantly full of tourists and therefore booze, the anteater became an alcoholic. As they have long tongues he learnt to lick the insides of beer bottles and became dependent upon it as other animals that live amongst humans have in the past, mainly primates. My friend stayed at this ranch and to avoid the long-clawed wrath of the creature they would scarper when it approached them, abandoning their beer.

Other animals that reside in these plains are iguanas, anacondas, capybara, foxes, red howler monkeys, turtles, caiman and deer. It is also a proverbial bliss for birdwatchers as there over 1,400 species to be seen here, constantly in flux due to migration patterns and they are easy to spot in the plains and swamps.

Some of the birds that can be spotted are the quetzal, masked trogon, military macaw, bronze winged parrot, rose-headed parakeet, black mandibled toucan, collared cracari, emerald toucanet, Andean condor, torrent duck, sword-billed hummingbird, red-ruffed fruitcrow and my personal favourite cock of the rock that I saw in Peru. Now if that isn’t red hot bird porn to lovers of all things feathery then I don’t know what else you could want.

The capybara is a firm favourite of mine and we saw them on the savannah and in the water. If you are a fan of the internet then you’ll know that the capybara is chill with everyone. They are regularly pictured with birds, monkeys, guinea pigs, dogs, cats and ducks as everyone loves to ride the world’s largest rodent. They live in herds with one dominant male with 4-6 females. They are farmed and hunted in some South American countries for their leather which is soft and flexible. Some people consider their meat to be a delicacy.

Now, I may surprise you with this statement but I think Capybara meat is a very good idea. Cows are a nightmare on our planet in terms of the destruction of habitat necessary for their grazing and the amount of water and power needed to process beef as well as the methane they emit. In the world we live in they are just a bad idea. Capybara are like mini-cows but with much lower carbon and much less harsh on their environment.

The creature that I was really interested in wasn’t any of these swamp, land or tree dwellers, it was in the river. Apart from a few distant ripples in the water I had not had anywhere near as close an encounter as I wanted with a pink dolphin. I only discovered the existence of these mythical mammals from the Lonely Planet guidebook and when a friend of mine heard mention of their existence on Twitter, her tweeted response to Uberfacts was ‘bullshit’.

This isn’t a surprising reply as pink dolphins seem to be rarely spoken about and even when I told fellow travellers most of them had no idea. My theory for this is because river dolphins are not quite as good looking or as friendly as their seafaring relatives.

They are also unduly unpopular with the indigenous people of the Amazon as some of them believe that a dolphin or ‘boto’ could change shape and rape them as they have a large penis which has similarities to that of a human.

The Amazonian river dolphins are one of five species of river dolphin and have special adaptations to their river habitat such as a very long nose for searching through murky depths. This is why they look so different to the bottlenose and they are in fact only very distantly related to sea dwellers and fall into a different family. For lovers of scientific terminology, river dolphins are part of the Platanistoidea family and oceanic dolphins are part of the Delphinidae family.

I hope you find these explanations as arousing as I do and if so you’re in luck because there are plenty more to come. But why are they pink? Well, I will answer that question right now for you dear reader, it has developed because of a river adaptation and could also be caused by capillaries that are close to the surface of the skin. I am aware that this is a somewhat inconclusive answer but you’re going to like this next fact so much that believe me you won’t care. Now when the dolphin is excited or surprised it actually gets pinker just like a blushing human due to the increased blood flow. I know that you’re tempted to tell all your friends about this and you definitely should.

Pink dolphins have been reclassified as an endangered species for all the obvious reasons, the mercury used in gold mining is a major contaminant to river life and acts as a poison to many creatures. They are also harmed by propellers when investigating the many boats that travel up and down the Amazon, the noise of boat engines also wreaks havoc with their echo navigation systems.

If you are a dolphin lover (and if you aren’t what kind of hideous monster are you?) an excellent documentary to watch is The Cove which deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. It is an upsetting watch but it raises vital questions about the ethics of dolphin hunting practices in Japan.

It is mainly bad news as the unsustainable living practices of human beings means that we are fucking up our marine life in a way that will cause harm to us and deprive us of a valuable source of food in the future. If we don’t protect our sea life it will be boggle-eyed transparent sea danglers with chips and peas for tea on a Friday as we are forced in fish deeper and deeper until what we’re eating isn’t classed as fish anymore.

My time with the dolphins was short but sweet as we watched them swim in rings through the murky Orinoco surrounding our boat. It was strange to think that the locals could be scared of a large pink creature that is able to blush when it is aroused.

Despite the disinterest of the Amazonian people, I discovered that there is a small NGO project to protect the dolphins. This monitoring takes place in the Mamirauá reserve in Brazil which calls itself a sustainable development project including marine mammals.

It seems that the work has begun the preserve the various species of river dolphin and this could not have come at a better time for the boto as water pollutants, overfishing and use of motor-powered boats are on the rise in water supplies the world over. I am waiting and I am hoping that when I have grandchildren I can take them on a trip down the tributaries of the Amazon River and they can see for themselves that the stories there grandmother told them were in no way bullshit.

There is some recent better news as in September 2012 the Bolivian president Evo Morales brought out new legislation which bans the fishing of the pink dolphin in Bolivia and declared it a national treasure. This won’t stop everyone from harming it but acknowledging that it is worth protecting is a positive step.

Australia was thinking much bigger when they announced in 2011 that they were going to protect almost 1 million sq km of surrounding coral reef areas. It will cost $60 million Australian dollars but let’s hope it happens as we are in need of a trailblazer on this issue.

Venezuela has been hitting the headlines in 2016 and 2017 as it is having a difficult time. Venezuela depends on oil and that has been its undoing as an economic crisis means that its cupboards are bare and the country doesn’t produce a significant amount of food, relying heavily on imported goods. 

The border between Venezuela and Colombia where I crossed at Cucuta is often closed as are large swathes of the border to stop food smuggling. Some basic goods have been price-controlled for affordability since 2003. The problem with heavily subsiding goods is that there is a hefty profit to be made at the border, with a massive 40% of goods are smuggled. 

There have been several reports of women breaking through the border in order to buy food. Presidente Maduro is calling it an ‘economic war’. Draught also means that the Guri dam which generates a massive two-thirds of their electricity is not producing enough. Electricity was rationed for 4 months as a result.

The economic crisis, electricity and food shortages mean that Venezuela is facing a perfect trifecta of shit and I hope things get better.

But now, we visit Colombia, one of the absolute stars of the show and a country that has lived through hell and survived. I saw a Colombian circus show in Manchester with incredible performers and I got emotional just thinking about how much I love that country and how glad I was that it continues to thrive. I don’t know what it is about Colombia but it just gets to me.

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