Night of the Lechusita

Could a sighting of the rare long-whiskered owlet save at least a corner of the threatened Peruvian rainforest? Our intrepid bird-watcher was determined to find out.

"Our vocation, our true vocation, was to roam the highways and waterways of the world forever. Always curious, investigating everything we set eyes on, sniffing into nooks and crannies; but always detached, not putting roots anywhere, not staying long enough to discover what lay beneath things: the surface was enough."

- Che Guevara, "The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America," translated by Ann Wright, Fourth Estate, London

In order to work the hot water in Noga and Sam's shower at La Esperanza, all you have to do is slip out of your sleeping bag at five in the morning to the sound of crowing roosters and the roar of passing trucks, shake off the remnants of jet lag, put on a flashlight headlamp, quietly walk out the wooden back door of the volunteers' hut into the freezing Peruvian night in your rubber shoes, trudge through the mud on the slippery steps to the asbestos shack that houses the showers and toilets, search around beneath the sink, where the purple propane balloon is found, guess the direction in which to turn the knob of the balloon, plod on back to the shower, stand on tiptoe trying to reach the greasy showerhead (which Noga and Sam had to hide after three volunteers, female college students brought in to work with the community, would inexplicably shut themselves into the shower room for days on end), put the showerhead into its socket on the propane water heater they acquired at their own expense, turn on the faucet and only then press the switch. If you've done everything correctly, a small purple flame will spark and flicker between the slits of the mechanism. At this point you should pull off your sweatshirt and sweatpants, keep your distance from the black widow that has spread her funnel-shaped web close to the door hinge, stick yourself under the drizzle of lukewarm water - the sole comfort available to you and the students who preceded you - and wonder what the hell you are doing in this desperately poor village in the eastern foothills of the Andes.

La Esperanza - Hatikva in Hebrew ("the hope") - is currently the final station on my road to losing my mind. My decline began four years ago, when in my naivete I re-embraced an old childhood hobby - bird-watching. As part of this sweet and harmless occupation, I have to date purchased four cameras, one telescope, two pairs of binoculars, and two all-terrain vehicles; I have lost nearly all of my savings, left my job, lived for eight months in a desert, and lost practically every shred of my self-esteem. But over the years I did scrupulously observe one clear rule: you should not watch birds abroad - only in Israel. Otherwise, it's a slippery slope. Once you go abroad, there are really no limits.

And then came Oz. I first met Oz Horin in the mountains of Eilat at the height of the spring raptors' migration. There they were, rising on the warm thermals, thousands of honey buzzards heading from Africa to Europe. Napping in Oz's car was his little son Tomer, and Oz couldn't put down his binoculars. One by one he scanned the buzzards, searching for the rare oriental honey buzzard.

"It isn't for me," he said, apologetically. "It's for Tomer. He needs it for the list of birds he has seen." Tomer continued to snooze in the car, unaware of the sacrifice his father was making on his behalf. I looked at Oz and knew I'd found a friend. Someone here was even more addicted than I was.

Since then, dozens of pathetic chases after rare birds have forged a friendship between Oz and myself, and drawn us further and further away from the sane community of humankind. It also led to the rupture of my last taboo, when Oz came up with his vision of Global Owling. The idea was completely off the wall: try to see all the owl species in the world within a few years. Since we will apparently never, ever be truly outstanding bird-watchers, at least let's find ourselves a niche.

People like owls. There are only some 200 species of owl worldwide, and while it would be extremely difficult to see some of them, we could set a record for ourselves that no one else would be foolish enough to try to break. We could exploit the opportunity to take some wild trips around the world, on the assumption that we could secure a sponsor, of course. It was the stupidest idea I'd ever heard. I of course agreed to it without a moment's hesitation.

I hoped that would be the end of the matter, but Oz is a methodical fellow. One day he sent me an e-mail announcing that we'd found our first mission. It turned out there is an international Web site for owls known as "Owl Pages," which tells the story of the rarest owl in the world, known as the long-whiskered owlet, or in Latin, the Xenoglaux loweryi - the strange owl. Over in the Andes Mountains of Peru, where it keeps itself hidden, they simply call it the lechusita, the small owl. And it is indeed one of the two tiniest owls in the world. I stared at the picture of this ugly, mustachioed dwarf with big orange eyes, and fell in love with it the way people fall in love with their wrinkled baby the moment it emerges from the womb.

Google informed me that the owlet was only revealed to science in 1976, when one happened to be snared accidentally in a net spread by researchers in the cloud forests of the eastern Andes foothills. Since then, it has been captured maybe once or twice more, and seen in nature on only one occasion, close to a lodge in the private nature reserve Abra Patricia. Oz and I set out for this lodge in July 2009. Like hundreds of other birders from around the world, we saw dozens of species of birds there, enjoyed the pampering beds, the hot water, the more than ample meals and the spacious rooms. We paid with our Visa cards and complained about the mud and the difficult walks. Like hundreds of other birders from around the world, each night we played the muted call of the lechusitas, a sort of weak but consistent monosyllabic croaking, directed toward the dim forests - but our calls went unanswered. On our last night there, we thought we heard from the forest three croaks in response. We did not spot the bird, but comforted ourselves with the fact that during the six months prior to our visit, no one else had even heard it.

The journal of our trek, which was for me rich and fascinating despite our failure, was published in my favorite birding forum on Tapuz, and from there made its way to the Ynet news portal. Several days after its publication, I received the following e-mail from Erez Ehrlichman, the site's capable nature correspondent: "Noga Shanee, a primatologist in Peru, wrote to me by e-mail and Facebook after reading the article: 'It's a shame, if he'd come to us in our reserve, we have the lechusitas and all of the other birds, as well as a lot of apes - and everything is cheap!'"

"Don't worry," Shanee wrote me a few days later. "We haven't seen the lechusita, but some bird-watchers who came to visit did record her, so we know she's there. We are neighbors of Abra Patricia, and the idea of our project is to set up a network of nature reserves. The big difference between us and the association that operates Abra Patricia is that we are not buying plots of land. We work with the locals to protect the forest by themselves.

"Bird-watcher tourism is supposed to be one of the ways to help them economically. Because we are working with the communities, our tourism is much harder. We have none of the pampering comforts of Abra Patricia. Here there are lunatic walks extending for hours on end in outrageous mud; untrained guides; and as for the sleeping conditions ... We would of course be pleased if you came for a visit, or if you forwarded this e-mail to other birders ... I'm certain that after a few sleepless nights we would be able to photograph the lechusitas in nature for the first time."

That was in August, when my muscles were still aching from the first trek. Pampering comforts at Abra Patricia? Lunatic walks for hours on end in outrageous mud? Sleeping conditions with three dots? This was a proposition that could be refused. On January 7, I got on the plane.

The yellow-tailed woolly monkey

In order to get from the airport of Tarapoto, the closest large city, to the home of Noga and Sam at La Esperanza, you have to take a tuk-tuk to the shared-taxi station, then take a taxi to the next city, Moyobamba, wait for the taxi to fill up, drive for two hours, switch taxis in Moyobamba for a shared cab to Nueva Cajamarca, wait for it to fill up, watch your wallet in Nueva Cajamarca because it is notoriously filled with thieves, get into a third shared taxi - a matter of two hours more to La Esperanza. When one of these taxis passes by an enormous, colorful church, Noga tells me about the place, which is called Segunda Jerusalem - the second Jerusalem.

The feast the plant's owners threw for the town's residents in the new church went on for three days and three nights. Three days and three nights of free meals, at corporate expense, following which there wasn't a single person in Nueva Jerusalem who had not converted and joined the new church. On the same occasion, the name of the town was changed from Nueva Jerusalem to Segunda Jerusalem, in order to emphasize its even greater closeness to God. Since then, Segunda Jerusalem has welcomed those passing on the main road with the gaily colored church, and above it hovers a perpetual corona of carcinogenic cement dust.

Noga told me all this in the taxi to La Esperanza, but my gaze was already directed outside, toward the river, where an Amazon Kingfisher was diving. I came here to see birds, not to hear about people's troubles. As soon as you start to see birds, you stop seeing everything else. Especially people. People get in the way. They obscure the birds and drive them off.

Like fishing, birding is active idleness. Only without even having to catch fish. A hobby that isn't good for anything and doesn't produce any value, only expenses and pollution as a result of our travels around the world. Surplus exports of lunacy from the Western world thrown into the Third World. We drive around the most out-of-the-way places in rented safari vehicles, waving at locals with our expensive cameras like a walking invitation to theft, and sleep in the nearby lodge, behind a fence. By any stretch of the imagination, could we be even nominally helpful to anyone?

For whatever reason, Noga and Sam Shanee think so. Years of tiring and frustrating work saving apes taught them that the big money in the preservation and tourism field is actually in birds. It's a matter of gender, says Noga Shanee. Birding is a decidedly masculine field, and is therefore loaded with money and resources. If you think about it, most of the leading primatologists in the world are women. Perhaps because of this, there isn't a cent in the field.

Noga and Sam arrived in La Esperanza on the trail of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, one of the rarest and most threatened species in the world. This beautiful monkey has been known to science since 1802, when a German researcher found a local rider using its pelt as a saddle. The species was eventually deemed extinct, until 1974, when it was first seen in nature. It is estimated that at most, 250 monkeys still remain.

When Noga and Sam arrived at La Esperanza, they discovered surprisingly large troops of apes in the forests around the village. Two possibilities presented themselves: either the region was extremely rich in food, or as a result of the lunatic pace of deforestation, the apes were being pushed into small areas that would not be able to sustain their needs, and were therefore living atop a time bomb.

In any event, preservation of the region was critical. There was no choice. Although the area was gloomy and rainy, they remained. They knew no organization would come there, they say, and that was a good enough reason.

All of Peru is administered through a system of concession permits. Like many Third World countries that are unable to manage their own natural resources, Peru offers itself practically for free to any corporation, local or foreign. The corporations are awarded colossal tracts of land for a period of 40 years, land from which they are allowed to squeeze every possible drop of profit. In exchange, the state receives a few percentage points of revenue. God only knows what commissions are pocketed by the politicians who cook up the deals.

As a fig leaf, the Peruvian authorities left a clause in the franchise law that also enables local residents and preservation groups to apply to the state for land permits - in order to turn the land into nature reserves. These concession permits are very difficult to obtain, and are revoked whenever a mine operator or a powerful financial corporation is interested in the same land. When Noga and Sam started to fight for this type of land permit in La Esperanza to save their apes, they never dreamed that local communities of campesinos would stand with them and request, at their own initiative, that the government declare their land a nature reserve. But that is precisely what happened.

Back from Paujil

"I arrived here for the first time in 1988, and started to walk around in the forests. Here I discovered virgin forests teeming with life. I was very sad to see it increasingly vanishing. I decided to find groups that would join with me to protect these places, but so far I have been unable to find any help or guidance. But it's still not too late. We have a small group of people and we have a connection with an organization that is helping us to acquire the land permit for a preserve, and we are on the right track. I am very grateful and pleased," says Manuel Chavez, architect of the nature reserve in Paujil.

Paujil does not appear on any map. It is a hidden valley nestled among the mountains, two days' walk from the nearest village. Manuel Chavez and his friends discovered it while searching for fertile land for their coffee plantations. They fell in love with it, and understood that this place had to be saved. Paujil is not a country for old men, women or children. There is no electricity, no telephone wires, cell phone reception or running water, aside from the water of the river. If you are injured, get sick or are bitten by a snake, only the gods of the Andes can save you.

But it is this isolation that makes the place a refuge for the animals that long ago vanished from built-up regions: The howler monkeys from whose throats the wind bursts forth, alongside umbrellabirds with absurd Elvis haircuts, and loquacious macaw parrots flitting across the sky as the jaguar roars below.

The forest is fertile and bustling with life, even though development has arrived here, as well. The valley is called Paujil, or in English, Curassow - a large bird that was hunted in wholesale numbers until its near extinction. But you can still hear its faint growl in the local forests.

For two weeks I was swallowed up in this paradise with a biology delegation organized by Noga Shanee, But paradise, so we've learned - even here - exists only in legends. One day we set out to find the pava, or as it is known in English, the guan, a large bird that is a distant and beautiful relative of the paujil and the turkey. Like them it has been hunted almost to the point of extinction. The path led us to another mountain hut, where a smiling farmer served us a rural Peruvian chicken, its flesh reddish and tough, and told us that only yesterday three pavas had perched on the tree outside. He suggested we look for them deep in the forest.

In the evening, returning empty-handed, we heard a surprise gunshot. It developed that the same friendly farmer had shot, especially for us, an ocelot, a small, gorgeous type of leopard that the locals call a tigrillo. Seeing tourists, he'd figured this was an excellent opportunity to sell a stuffed animal. When it was scathingly explained to him that these tourists actually prefer their animals alive, he told us that the chicken we had eaten for lunch was actually a pava, one of the three he'd seen yesterday on the tree. As birders, we had learned to identify birds by their appearance, by their song, even by the form of their flight. But their taste? This was the sort of observation we had a hard time stomaching.

However, brutal as it is, hunting does not threaten the area of Paujil as much as mining and deforestation do. Based on what Noga has learned, it may be that all the goodwill of the residents and all the rare birds we found will not be enough to prevent the transformation of this paradise into yet another residential and industrial development.

The struggle for preservation and environmental quality in Peru has already exacted a cost in human life. In the summer of 2009, thousands of residents set out from the Amazon region to demonstrate against the government's intent to permit foreign corporations to build mines and pump oil in their territory. For two months, the demonstrators blocked roads in the area of the city of Bagua Grande, in the Amazon region, until one morning in early June the police opened fire on them. No one knows, even now, how many people were killed in these riots. Estimates run between 10 and several hundred. Among the dead were dozens of police. The true number is unknown because most of these people do not appear in any population registry, and because the state has no interest in determining their identities or how many were killed. The day after the massacre, Noga Shanee rushed to Bagua in a taxi to see what fate had befallen her friends. "I couldn't understand why the city was so empty and quiet," she recalls, "until suddenly, from one of the houses, one of the guys emerged, pulled me in and asked if I'd gone nuts. It turned out that the entire city was under curfew. Helicopters were patrolling the skies and shooting at anyone who dared to come out." Ever since, she has no doubts. She is certain she will not leave Peru alive.

1,800 types of mud

In the revolutionary fervor that began to sweep through my journey, the lechusita was not forgotten. This ghost owlet - the only hope of the La Esperanza villages for a better future and my own hope for worldwide fame in the birding community - disturbed my sleep in Paujil; every night I imagined I heard her. I asked everyone we met on the way if they had heard or seen her. Every person seemed to know a lechuza, and more than a few swore they'd seen the one and only. Alexcio, the braggart of La Esperanza, even boasted that one night he caught two of them with his own hands. Noga believed him; I most certainly did not.

On my last two nights in La Esperanza, I no longer had the strength for the lechusita hunt. I had seen so much, walked so much and slept so little that all I wanted to do was spoil myself a bit in the worst restaurant in the village and watch my favorite Peruvian telenovela, "Las Munecas de la Mafia."

But Noga wouldn't leave me alone. Actually, you haven't even seen the real forest yet, she said. It is a three-hour walk from here, five at your pace. I'm going to find a local guide and then we'll move out. Grumbling, I gathered myself up, put a few cans of food, rice and water into the kit bag, and then collapsed onto the bench outside the door of the office. Wearing a cruel British smile, Sam wished us luck. When you see her, don't forget to take good pictures, he said. How much I hated him at that moment.

The path into the forest begins at an innocent-looking alley right behind Noga and Sam's house. The neighbors' stares followed us that sunny day, the first one after two weeks of continuous rain, as we headed toward the far side of the village. I had the feeling that they pitied us. Because at the same exact spot where the alley ended, an autostrada of mud began to flow. This was the Via Dolorosa that led the cows to the forest and the forest to its destruction.

There are more than 1,800 species of birds in Peru, and in my opinion the same number of different types of mud. Incidentally, the mud in which colorful butterflies are embedded, is not mud; it is cow dung. There is a difference, and you can guess how I discovered it.

The name of the game is to keep your socks dry. Rubber boots are nice, but one careless step and you sink in deep, well above the knee. It is very hard to play this game on a road used by horses or cows; their steps are heavy and every hoof stamped into the mud on a rainy day leaves behind a deep trap for human feet. It is difficult, nearly impossible, to play this game on the muddy road of La Esperanza, which descends from the village to the river and then climbs to the grazing areas of the nearby mountain. It borders the forest into which I now marched with a 20-kilogram kit bag on my back. Noga walked in front of me in top form and an energetic mood. All of the cattle of the village had passed by before us, spreading their land mines.

As we drew closer to the forest, it drew farther away from us. Heaps of pruned branches, piles of manure and the noise of electric saws filled the scene. Sunk in a state of bitterness, I did not notice that the landscape had changed and become more subtle, that real trees began to embrace us, and that we had arrived at a mountain hut in the heart of a forest clearing, which, for a change, was surrounded by forest. After dinner there remained only one slight matter to settle, this business of the lechusita.

Now the forest decided to alter its approach. As soon as we left the hut, we could hear two types of large owls calling out. Neither of them was the lechusita, but I was encouraged to realize that there was action afoot. A few minutes passed, and a large dark blot sprang down from one of the treetops and was swallowed up in the darkness. The shrieks and growls all around made it clear that a troop of nocturnal monkeys was not pleased with our presence and had decided to cut out, perhaps earlier than usual. Two hundred meters deeper and Edin Fonseca, the local guide, stopped us in a state of excitement.

A young spotted cat was staring at us from the bushes, looking for a way to reach its mother. She was the size of an adult house cat, and the rings on her body left no room for doubt. This was a flesh-and-blood tigrillo, an ocelot. As it faded into the darkness, I was still trying to focus my camera. These nervous leopards are constantly moving.

As far as I was concerned, we could have ended the excursion then and there. I'd seen enough, but the others insisted. We continued up the path, weaving our way between the tree trunks that had fallen onto the wet forest floor. Every so often we stopped to play into the darkness, from a palm computer, a recording of the famous rhythmic call of the lechusita. I had played the same call nearly every night that month, in vain. I had grown so accustomed to failure that on that night, when a hoarse call in an identical rhythm was heard from the darkness, I continued to walk. Probably a frog, I told Noga. A frog?! I stopped and listened again. The call was repeated. Hoarse, and lower than the voice in the recording, as if someone here was a heavy smoker, but it was impossible to mistake that rhythm. A song I'd heard hundreds of times was suddenly being played in the forest. Noga fixed her eyes on Edin, the first to come to his senses, and he immediately whispered: "It's her, it's her. Vamos!"

A game of hide and seek ensued, the tense game of nerves familiar to anyone who has ever searched for an owl. One moment the call sounded close at hand, the next moment distant, from that tree over there, no, from this tree over here. And suddenly it disappeared. How can you close in on her without frightening her away when you are such a clumsy creature? Edin suddenly headed off the trail. We followed him in the almost complete darkness on tiptoe, improving our position, and suddenly Noga whispered: there she is.

And there she was. Thirteen centimeters of ugliness, mustache and personality staring at us with big orange eyes from a branch no more than five meters away. Shocked, we stared back at her. I had been preparing for this moment the entire trip, but nothing had prepared me for it. The pictures are lousy, I know, as is the video, but there were extenuating circumstances. Edin aimed his flashlight at her, and his hand was shaking the whole time. I aimed my camera at her, and my hand was shaking the whole time. Noga aimed the camcorder, and her hand was shaking. The lechusita continued to stare with an absolute lack of comprehension at our efforts, and only turned her head from side to side, as owls do when they feel at home.

The grace period lasted two minutes. During these two minutes, I managed to discover how much more I have to learn about my new camera, and at the same time think about poor Oz, who had stayed behind in Israel; how Yonatan, who was supposed to join me but ducked out at the last minute, would be eating his heart out; about what Lior, who was now in a different region of Peru, would say; and the look that would come over Sam's face when he learned that we had really seen her.

After all, how many pure moments of malicious joy does a person have in life? No doubt, this was a magical moment, a sense of spiritual elevation and harmony with nature. Eventually, the lechusita must have grown tired of me and did what birds usually do in such situations. She simply flew off.

While we were still hovering on clouds of euphoria, something even stranger happened: all of a sudden the forest filled with the calls of lechusitas. No less than five different birds were calling that night, each from its own corner. More than the grand total of worldwide observations to date. Apparently they'd been hiding here all these years, while the entire birding world was looking for them under a different street lamp. Drunk with victory and optimism, we returned to the mountain hut. We'd found the lechusita. We'd saved the forest. We'd saved Noga's yellow-tailed woolly monkeys. We'd saved La Esperanza. Now we could go to sleep.

End of the world

Our global discovery made waves for about half a day on a few Internet birding forums. Two birders even contacted me by e-mail asking for instructions on how to get there, but were alarmed when they heard how much walking was involved. A two-hour trek through mud? Well, we shall just have to find it at the Owlet Lodge, wrote Gunnar Engblom of Kolibri Expeditions Birdwatching Tours to members of his group, even though he knows very well that no one there has seen it for years. Some nature lovers are simply not used to nature's conditions.

Sometimes these things take time; maybe the message will yet seep in. Who knows, perhaps we will gradually put La Esperanza on the ecotourism map, and bring in a steady trickle of birders who will leave a few dozen Peruvian soles in the village, giving residents the feeling that it pays to preserve the forest. Perhaps some global organization will open its pockets and invest a little in this village, as they have invested in the nearby reserve. But maybe it's just a romantic illusion to believe that one little owl or a troop of monkeys, as beautiful and rare as they are, could drive an entire industry of preservation. Maybe I was the first and last tourist in the forest of the lechusita.

During my final week in Peru, I said farewell to Noga and Sam and went down to Iquitos, the capital of the Peruvian Amazon, to spend some time with Noam Shani. Noam Shani, no relation to Noga, is an Israeli birder who has lived in Peru for seven years and is making strides in the realm of preservation. Shani works with indigenous communities who own immense tracts of land in the jungle. In every instance, the communities were persuaded to preserve the forests, because they understood that they are the source of all their food reserves. These forests are not intended for Western tourists, and in most cases there are no roads leading to them. They are modern Noah's arks, which are supposed to survive the flood.

And the flood is already here. Anyone seeking to understand the source of child slavery in Peru, and why the hotels in Iquitos forbid children to enter the rooms without their parents - in accordance with new regulations against child prostitution - should try to find out where all the fish have gone.

For hundreds of years, residents of the Amazon gathered and hunted their own food. They never learned how to raise food in any commercial way. These are people who essentially never left paradise. However, over the past 15 years, fishing in the river has declined by 99.5 percent. Hunting has gradually disappeared, as has fruit for human consumption. For the first time in their lives, the Indians of the Amazon are facing starvation. And when there is no food, you do everything you can to acquire it. Including selling your children. That is what happens when you allow into paradise corporations that export its resources on a commercial scale. The huge nature reserves Noam Shani is promoting in the Amazon are intended not only to save animals, but the food bank of these communities.

The month I spent chasing the lechusita made it clear to me that anyone who dreams that governments like that of Peru will halt the destruction of the world is simply hallucinating. If you want to save the world, you must make a deal directly with the villagers of the Andes and the Indians of the Amazon. It turns out that some of them are much wiser than their rulers.

Just before the Amazon threw us out in a storm of rain and an angry cloud of mosquitoes, I met in the small village of San Pedro with Jon, son of the village chieftain. We spoke about birds, monkeys and politics and suddenly he asked me for my thoughts about the end of the world. A hell of an unusual question, I thought to myself, and in an attempt to break through the embarrassment, I pulled out the biggest cliche of all: "The end of the world will come when you cut down the last tree." Jon smiled politely. "It will come much earlier than you think," he assured me.W

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