By profession, I’m a consulting engineer. I run a small firm that provides advisory services to infrastructure investors reviewing investment opportunities and litigation lawyers locked in contractual disputes. I’ve worked in Peru on a number of occasions; mainly in Lima – apart from the obligatory trip to Machu Picchu. This time was different.
I was asked to travel to Peru’s second city, Arequipa, located in the south of the country. As soon as the trip was confirmed I started to explore the opportunity to tack on a short recording expedition (wildlife sound recording is a passion of mine). I didn’t have long. One week. The Amazon Basin was in my sights. I generally look for wildlife conservation projects that offer placements to academics, scientists or interns and came across WorkingAbroad.
I explained what I wanted to do (sound recording), and my contact – Vicky – was incredibly helpful. She booked me six nights at the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, Peru, a wildlife research and rewilding centre located deep in the Peruvian Amazon. Food, transfer costs and a dedicated guide are included. It looked very promising online. All I had to do was get there.
From Arequipa, I flew one-hour north to Cusco. From there, my 45-minute connecting flight took me northeast to Puerto Maldonado – the gateway to the southern Amazon jungle. A friendly face was there to greet me. We grabbed an early lunch before heading off in the minibus on the three-hour road trip to the port of Lucerna on the Las Piedras River.
The minibus was fun. Badly cracked windscreen and wipers that didn’t work. Not helpful when you’re entering the world’s largest rainforest. Juan Carlos, my cheery driver, seemed unconcerned. But it was the content of the minibus that fascinated me. Two enormous drums of diesel, fresh fruit and vegetables stacked to the roof, and lots of canned food. One collared peccary (like a small boar), three baby possums and a rainbow boa – all for rewilding. And me.
The first half of the trip was on the tarmac before we headed off-road on a dirt track to the port. We paid some Sols at a small checkpoint – a toll used for track maintenance – before arriving at the tiny port just after 3 pm. My boat was waiting, as was Dylan Singer – a jovial Canadian, well-respected biologist and co-director of the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, Peru. Some resident interns had come along for the ride (from Spain, New Zealand, the UK and the US). A 30-minute trip upriver took us to what would become my home for the next six days.
Having left the boat, I was faced with a 20-minute trek through the humid jungle on a perilously muddy trail before we could reach the centre. This, I reminded myself, is why I pack carefully and use lightweight gear. I often have to carry it myself. Wheeled luggage is not an option in the jungle. And forget shoes or boots. I lived in wellies – just like everyone else.
Before diving into equipment, it is worth explaining my particular interest. I’m fascinated by soundscapes. The whole jungle orchestra. My preference is for long-form (3-day) recordings. That way, I can track, enjoy and learn about the evolving soundscape as it transitions from day to night and back to day. My goal is to capture clean audio files devoid of human noise – not easy, as many wildlife sound recordists know. Even in the Amazon Basin, you have to contend with sporadic construction noise and the sound of boats powering up and down the rivers. In this part of the world, you have the added challenge of Bolivian drug smugglers moving product on small, low-altitude planes. But, by and large, the area surrounding the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, belongs to the jungle and its residents. Perfect!
Bearing in mind that I carry my own luggage, I pack light. Two bags. A holdall with clothes, toiletries and medical essentials and my backpack – with my kit. Three Sony high-definition recorders and some highly-sensitive, low-noise microphones. A fourth recorder with excellent built-in mics (and wind protection) gives me additional flexibility – serving as a backup if required – plus the usual ancillaries (power banks, chargers, memory cards, laptop, backup drive, cables etc.). It all mounts up but can fit in a backpack (just).
I’ve been a big fan of Sony recorders for a number of years. When paired with a decent set of external mics, they simply deliver. Nobody has ever criticised my recordings on quality grounds. I’m far more interested in seeking out and capturing quality content than chasing the latest technical specification. Importantly, they are inexpensive. A drop-rig – the recording gear I leave out overnight in the jungle to capture all of the magic – costs me just under $500 all in (recorder, mics, memory card, power bank and lead, dry bag, desiccant, and tape) – a key consideration when damage or theft is always a possibility.
Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, Peru
On arrival at the centre, I met the other co-director (and founder) of the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, US conservationist Sam Zwicker. Together, Sam and Dylan are a formidable yet friendly couple; exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about jungle animals – especially big cats. They were the perfect hosts.
The centre itself is comprised of four, large eco-friendly wooden buildings. Aside from the main block (for cooking, eating and relaxing – with office and laboratory space) there is a veterinary facility located some distance away. Two resident vets stay there for animal care and rewilding preparations. The other buildings are dormitories; basic and open, but comfortable with bunkbeds and mosquito nets. Like wild camping but with a tin roof overhead. I slept well.
Planning and Execution
To make the most use of these short stays, I have to hit the ground running. I always send details in advance about what I’ll be doing, what I’ll be looking for – and why. With three recorders at my disposal, I generally look for three different habitats for deployment or locations known for different wildlife, features or ambiences. Prior to my arrival, Dylan and my excellent Peruvian guide – Vincente – had spent some time reviewing my requirements and identifying candidate locations. Exactly what I needed.
I’ve made similar, short-stay recording trips to other destinations (recently Madagascar, Ecuador and Costa Rica) so my itinerary now tends to follow a familiar pattern:
Day 0 (arrival): Evening. Meet my guide, run through my requirements, introduce the equipment, and discuss recording and recording locations. Review the schedule.
Day 1: Deploy three drop-rigs for overnight recordings. A long day as scouting is involved and I am still familiarising myself with the local environment.
Day 2: AM. Retrieve the recorders and quickly review the audio files.
Day 2: PM. Return the recorders to their stations (or alternative ones if the overnight sessions were unproductive).
Days 3 & 4: Days off. Periodically check the recorders, grab interesting sounds with my D100, help out around the centre, enjoy some photography etc.
Day 5: AM. Retrieve the recorders.
Day 5: PM. A more in-depth review of my audio files.
Day 5: Evening. Possibly deploy some final overnight drop-rigs.
Day 6 (departure): Retrieve any deployed recorders and leave.
This schedule may seem rather regimented, but it works well for me and, importantly, can be shared – in advance – with others. Everybody, most critically my guide, knows what will be happening on different days and can plan accordingly. All going well, it gives me somewhere between 250 and 300 hours of recordings. Plenty to enjoy and keep me occupied when I return home!
My recent trip to the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme, was a complete success, as is usual, because of the people involved. I’m still working through my files, but I’m delighted with what I’ve heard so far. Strong vocalisations from individual species (mainly birds – which I’ll submit to a popular online repository of wildlife recordings) and stunning jungle soundscapes. Almost no human presence at all. Delicious!
Some things I miss already. No massive ants on my toothbrush every morning or upending my wellingtons before putting them on (to check for stowaways). No crushing humidity or ankle-deep mud. Peeling apart my cigarette papers as they had all stuck together. Swapping stories with workers and interns at the centre.
Would I recommend the Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme to other wildlife sound recordists or anyone, for that matter, interested in ecology or conservation? 100% Yes.
Written by WorkingAbroad Volunteer Robert Bain, Kent, UK