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Bullet Ant in Peru

Environment & Wildlife, From the Field

Help! Bullet Ants: Peru Week 7

December 17th 2023

During my fourth week of living next door to a bullet ant nest, the inevitable happened. “Ouch!” Maria, the other intern, yelped with tears in her eyes. “I think I’ve just been stung by a wasp! Ouch! It really hurts!” She showed me her finger, which looked a little swollen and had clearly been stung by something. “I know it can’t be a bullet ant,” she said confidently, “cause it’s not that painful.”

She had just taken her clothes down from the washing line outside, where we often see bullet ants patrolling. She was holding her clean clothes, having just finished shaking them out, specifically to ensure that no bullet ants or spiders were dwelling inside when something stung her. Very carefully, I checked for anything on her clothes, which she had dropped to the floor in shock. I couldn’t find anything on the outside of them. When she mentioned that the pain was spreading from her finger up her arm, I told her to go ask the staff for advice. For all we knew, it could have been a wasp, a spider, a scorpion, anything.

Julio to the Rescue

Julio, who has lived by the rainforest his entire life, had been stung by a bullet ant previously and recognised the symptoms. He confirmed that Maria had been stung by a bullet ant. He checked Maria’s clothes more thoroughly than I did and found the culprit inside a pair of trousers. Surprisingly, to remove it, he let the ant crawl from the trousers onto his arm, and then he shook it off. He said that as long as you don’t aggravate them, they won’t hurt you. Maria was unlucky there.

The pain spread all the way from her finger, up her arm, to her chest. When she woke up the next morning, the pain was gone. She described the sting as painful, but “far from the worst pain I’ve ever experienced.” The next day, which was particularly hot, I even heard her comment, “The heat is the worst.” She thinks that everyone online is exaggerating the pain. I don’t know if they are but I don’t want to find out.

team on the boatVolunteer in Peru | WorkingAbroadMy First Interaction with the Direct Threats to the Amazon

Another event out of the ordinary this week was passing an unusual boat on the river. Two men were standing in the water next to the boat, which appeared to have a long raft-like structure attached to the back of it. We soon found out that this kind of boat is used by illegal loggers. The timber is submerged underwater and tied to the underside of the raft-like structure. This way, it can’t be seen. Legal loggers typically transport their timber in big trucks along the roads, as they have no need to hide it.

In some areas of the rainforest, logging is allowed. This logging is often restricted to certain types of trees, or a certain number of trees, with the aim of causing less damage to the forest. However, often these restrictions are not adhered to. Illegal logging can also occur when loggers cut down trees in areas where they do not have permission.

Illegal Logging

It goes without saying that illegal logging is incredibly damaging to the rainforest, destroying the homes of countless rainforest creatures. One of the staff mentioned that they’d heard of a study where a GPS tracker was placed inside an illegally logged tree from the Amazon rainforest. The tree was traced all the way to an IKEA property in the United States! (I struggled to find the story online, so send me the link if you know it!)

Thankfully, there is no logging at the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme reserve, where I’m staying. The Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme is situated in one of the most remote and unexplored areas of the Peruvian Amazon, the Las Piedras. The land owned by the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, surrounding the research station, is a pristine rainforest home to a wide variety of animal species. However, not far from here, there’s a whole host of problems threatening what’s left of the Amazon rainforest.

Gold Mining

Aside from illegal logging, gold mining has been going on in the Amazon for a long time and is a huge threat to rainforest ecosystems in Peru. Gold mining often occurs via river dredging. This is where sediments in the river are dug up to look for small pieces of gold. Liquid mercury is added to the sediment, which causes the small pieces of gold to amalgamate, and clump together. The mercury is then burned off, leaving the gold. This mercury then spreads through the air, poisoning plants, animals and people. In the river, the mercury contaminates the water and the fish.

Studies have shown that indigenous people living in areas close to where gold mining occurs suffer from mercury poisoning due to eating contaminated fish. Mercury poisoning is extremely dangerous and among other symptoms, can cause neurological damage and birth defects. Mercury poisoning also causes health problems for wildlife and increases mortality rates. After gold mining, the land is destroyed. It is left as polluted ponds, which will never recover. This causes habitat loss for many species which are forced to flee from their homes or die. To my understanding, government efforts are being made to limit mercury use in gold mining but controlling its use is difficult.

Amazon River Wildlife

Luckily, the Las Piedras River next to the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, is not contaminated with mercury. There’s lots of wildlife around the river; we’ve seen turtles, caimans, a capybara and lots of different butterflies and birds. This week we went out to the clay lick by the river to observe macaws. Clay licks, or collpas, as they are known in the Amazon, are clay deposits where erosion of the riverbank has caused the clay to become exposed. Many different animals use clay licks, usually to obtain salt and minerals from the clay. This behaviour of eating clay is known as geophagy.

We took the kayak across the river and positioned ourselves opposite the clay lick, watching for macaws with binoculars. We try to take photos of the macaws that pass in order to identify the different individuals later, using pattern recognition software. Last summer I was involved in something similar, creating an identification guide for giraffe individuals, based on their spot pattern. However, we did this by eye, without computer software.

MacawsVolunteer in Peru | WorkingAbroadThe Beautiful Macaws

The macaws we’re studying here are red and green macaws. Although these macaws are not endangered, their population is decreasing, mostly due to habitat loss. However, blue macaws (also known as Spix’s macaw) went extinct in the wild in 2019. Their population in captivity was thought to be around 50 individuals. Although several individuals from the captive population have now been reintroduced to the wild, this doesn’t guarantee that their wild population will become stable again.

The exotic pet trade is mostly responsible for the extinction of blue macaws in the wild. These beautiful birds are caught and sold globally as pets. Although there are regulations in place against this, only a handful of macaws are discovered en route and returned to the wild.

Macaws are only one of many kinds of animals which are subject to the exotic pet trade. Alongside the research station, there is a rescue centre at the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme. With the help of the local wildlife and forestry department, the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme were able to rescue a baby tapir from a household along the Las Piedras river. Her mother had been killed, so that her baby could be taken and sold as a pet. What makes people think it’s ok to do this?

Rescuing Coatis

This week, the rescue centre also took in a young coati (same family as raccoons), which had been an illegal pet. We took the coati on the boat back with us at the same time as we were picking up the food supplies. Coatis are known for their aggression, and yet this coati wasn’t aggressive at all. It wasn’t biting at the bars of the cage like a wild animal would. Instead, it seemed calm and curious.

It was behaving like a pet. This is why the animal cannot be released straight back into the wild and the rescue centre is necessary. This coati doesn’t possess the skills it needs to survive in the wild. First, it must go through a rehabilitation process at the rescue centre, learning how to be a wild animal again.

I haven’t seen any of the animals at the rescue centre because human contact is limited to only the staff who work there. This is to allow the animals to re-adapt to the wild as smoothly as possible. However, I’m interested in experiencing that kind of work a little bit and seeing rarer species, so I’m considering volunteering at a rescue centre somewhere later on in my travels around South America. This idea was also inspired by the book I’m reading just now, The Puma Years, about the author’s experience volunteering with a puma in the rainforest in Bolivia.

research stationVolunteer in Peru | WorkingAbroadHow to Help the Rainforests

Aside from logging, gold mining and the pet trade, there are many more anthropogenic threats to rainforests. It may seem like all doom and gloom, but there are many things that you can do to help protect the rainforest. Buying sustainable and responsibly sourced products, reducing your carbon footprint and educating yourself and others on how to be environmentally friendly are all ways that you can help.

If you play ultimate frisbee at the University of Glasgow (or even if you don’t), I encourage you to take part in FarFlung’s October Sustainability Challenge, run by Milly, the club’s sustainability convenor.

I’ve heard about these rainforest threats many times before while living in the UK but they seemed so distant that it was almost as if they weren’t really happening. Discovering these problems so close by, seeing illegal loggers right in front of my eyes and being surrounded by rainforest creatures that I would hate to see disappear, it hit home a little more about just how important it is to protect the biodiversity that we have. Before it’s too late.

Of course, you can also join the project I am on to help protect its precious wildlife!

I realise that this blog post has had a more serious note than my previous ones, but I think spreading awareness of these threats is important. See you next time with hopefully some more uplifting stories!

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Written by Holly Fortune

About the Author

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