Travel Wildlife

The misery of the wildlife trade in Iquitos

Daniel and I got a room in a hostel together and then looked around to book ourselves onto a jungle trip. We wanted to go on a really cheap trip so we went rogue and just hired a guide to avoid going through travel agencies. In hindsight, I wish we had come through a travel agency and paid upfront instead of the pay-as-go and organising it along the way.

Before the trip, we visited the shanty town of Belen with Bailey who we’d met on the boat. Belen is Spanish for Bethlehem but don’t be getting any biblical ideas about this place. Apparently, the shantytown is pretty shady but this didn’t really cross our minds at the time.

We hired a young guy with a boat to take us on a trip down the river and we drank coconuts and ate rice wrapped up in leaves. The major issue with the boat was that the river is fairly wide and there isn’t a lot to see – this was coupled with the fact that we’d all spent a lot of time on boats recently and the novelty had worn off somewhat.

Unemployment is high and many of the inhabitants come from the forest to sell their wares as well as hunting and fishing. It’s a really sad state of affairs but Iquitos is so isolated that there really is nowhere to go. Disease and violence are rife as people live in such overcrowded conditions, trapped in a hopeless cycle of poverty.

Another loser in the situation is the wild animals that are caught and sold at the market. Animal trafficking and hunting are less restricted here than some areas of Africa and Asia where there is money to pay guards to protect animals within certain park boundaries.

When I visited there were piles of deshelled tortoises and the gnarly bodies of indistinguishable small mammals. This is a trade borne more out of opportunism and poverty whereas African and Asian trading has evolved from the realms of desperation into organised crime linked with various other insalubrious trades.

At least the butchered animals are out of their misery, it’s a different story for those at the market. The marmosets whose minuscule legs are chained to tables all in a row along with parrots, kinkajous and baby capuchins who are so young but have witnessed such cruelty, whether intended or not.

In the wild the marmoset is a ball of energy, constantly on the move, listening for predators and never far from somewhere to hide. To be in the open, surrounded by humans and unable to move or socialise is the absolute opposite environment to their biological hardwiring.

The pet trade for these creatures is completely alarming as we cannot provide anything near as complex as their forest habitat and while some animals can possibly enjoy human company this is not one of them.

The animals I saw were a drop in the ocean as Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has discovered 383 species of animals trafficked in Peru in the last decade. Out of all these animals, 9 out of 10 die on route to one of 40 markets in 10 cities around the country. They also kill the mother to catch the baby so it doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that they can’t reproduce as fast as they are being killed.

We moved on to a different part of the market and we met another backpacker who joined us. Belen market is big so there is a lot to look at, it sells a lot of shamanistic items such as ayahuasca vines and bottles of San Pedro that looked like Vimto.

My worry was that backpackers would come here and buy a load of liquid hallucinogens, neck them and go fucking crazy. In ceremonies, only small amounts of the juice are used and I hope that is not lost on people. I am especially wary after my experience with Luke in Thailand.

Back at the market, the guys were having ‘boy banter’ and I was ignoring them. As I was looking for something to eat for lunch I stood still and a small dog cocked its leg up and pissed on me. My jeans were know soaked in piss and market floor juice. The British guy thought this was hilarious and couldn’t stop talking about it.

Little did he know how many animals had pissed on me during this trip, not to mention the guy who’d recently thrown up on me, as well as the shamanic spitting. I’d gone through the full spectrum of bodily fluids and I just didn’t care anymore.

The worst thing was that after this experience at the market our ‘jungle tour’ guide took us to some really dubious tourist wildlife attractions which made me feel even more for the wildlife of the Amazon. We met our guide at the Malecon, which is boulevard along the river which has some nice restaurants and nightlife. Even while we were sat there a man tried to get us to pay to hold his snake, an actual snake not his penis…

When we got back from our ropey jungle trip I helped Daniel to sort out his trip to go and live with a tribe and ‘be a man’. I wasn’t planning on going with him as he clearly wanted to go alone and I was heading to Brazil. I booked the flight for him as he didn’t have a credit card and he paid me back. He could have taken a boat there if he really wanted an authentic experience of the Amazon so I thought flying was a bit of a cop-out.

He asked the guy who worked at our hostel to take us to a guy outside town who had ‘tribal connections’ in Central Peru. We all hopped on motorbike taxis and when to a fairly nice camp on the outskirts. The fact that he needed two of us to help him showed how co-dependent and self-absorbed he was but I didn’t see that then. He was young though so it was good that we facilitated his dream.

Whilst he spoke with the head of the camp I found some caged animals including a female woolly monkey in a tiny cage with the most despondent look in her eyes. I held her hand that was dropped through the bars and she let me. I gave her a bit of company and I apologised on behalf of the human race.

I barely got a reaction from her, not even fear which I took as a sign of abject depression and misery. Keeping captive primates doesn’t strike me as very fucking shamanistic and I was glad to leave. It was time to leave Daniel, the caged animals and the Iquitos brand of madness behind.

I was sad to leave Iquitos as it had been so nice to have company and to often bump into people I knew in the street as it was such a small place. Luckily this was a short journey of two days as I was the only non-local on the boat and at the time I felt slightly intimidated by that. I also had to carry my valuables with me everywhere including when I had a shower as I had nobody to watch my bags.

It seems silly now as loads of people travel when they are the only foreigner and I imagine being an immigrant or a refugee alone without knowing the language must be far more frightening. One of the boat’s hostesses who bought the food round for us all was a transvestite.

This was the first and only transgender person I saw on the entire trip. Iquitos really does beat to the rhythm of its own drum in terms of acceptance of members of the LGBTQ community. It was also the only place where I was hit on by a woman on a night out with our guide but I didn’t go for it.

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