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Pain and Pleasure in Peru (Page II)

We're finally hunting, and it's certain to be a tough journey.

Noon-Camp. Gosh, I'm tired. Last night's adventure took more out of me than I care to admit. Or maybe it's sleep deprivation. But we're here now in our jungle abode, safe and sound. Verdant! Flowers everywhere. Just saw an incredible safire blue morphos butterfly. No hunting today. Sleep. I need sleep.

6 p.m.-Just met Alex, our guide. He's an interesting guy from the local village, a meat hunter who sells the game he kills downriver to the cities. The meat ends up in the markets there and is a huge industry, apparently. He explained that there is no way to control what he does because it's part of the social fabric. If you stopped the meat market you would create a revolution in the villages. If I understand what he said, it would be like cutting out your own heart because you've got high blood pressure. Point taken. Alex said he never knew there was such a thing as a hunting industry, and he knows he could take hunters and get them any animals they wanted. He said he would protect the animals given that opportunity. He's a smart guy; he catches on quickly and understands the concept of opening up his area for hunters.

It's funny, you recognize this all around the world, the same philosophy about animals, the same ideology. Though he kills for meat for his family and to sell it, he understands that such usage of the resource is not sustainable as the human population grows. Something has to be done to protect the animals and the eco-tourists are not the answer, according to Alex. The villagers hate the eco-tourists and the tour operators with the lodges because they share nothing, give nothing, buy nothing. He said he would kill them if he could. OK! How about that sunset!

June 7, 2009
5:30 a.m.-This is it! We're going hunting! I'll be the first nonresident to hunt the Peruvian Amazon Basin in nearly four decades. Alex is captain and guide. Somehow I'm not worried about him running us aground.

We pass two other boats gliding by in the dawn mist. They call the boats "pecka pecka" boats because of the noise the ancient motors make.

Capybara! Todd spots it on a high mud bank, below the high-water mark. A big male! Alex cuts the motor and we drift silently toward the giant rodent. I take the shot-perfect! Drop him where he stands. Have to, or he'd slide down into the chocolate water and disappear.

Alex is thrilled. We all are-it's a huge animal. The village has meat now, about 100 pounds of prime Grade A rat, I'm guessing. They call this animal a ronsoco. Besides being excellent table fare, it's the largest rodent in the world.

Alex invites us to see his trophy room located just downriver. It's a big open-air, thatched-roof gazebo with shelves on one side. I recognize some of the skulls on the shelves, but some I definitely don't. There's the skull of some kind of fish with huge fangs nearly 2 inches long. He's got capybara skulls, several jaguar skulls and a few tapir skulls. He shows me his hunting gun, a taped-up, ancient single-shot 16-gauge. He shows me how he cuts chunks of rebar to 6-inch lengths and how he removes the pellets from shotgun shells, then inserts the rebar bullet. You couldn't pay me enough to shoot that 5,000-grain, under-diameter bullet out of that gun, or any gun for that matter.

I tell Alex he has by far the nicest trophy room I've seen in the entire Amazon Basin. He bursts with pride. He shows me a picture of his father, who was also a hunter. Alex says when the eco-tourists first started coming up the river, there used to be five local lodges owned by villagers, but now there are only two. He says his father had traditional areas for collecting Brazil nuts, but when the eco-tourist companies came, they took the land away from them.

Sad stories. Alex is a good guy, but the pain he feels, and the loss, is real. I wish I could offer him some hope, but I cannot. From mid-morning on I count a dozen tour boats roaming up and down the river. There are too many tourist operators in the area, too many lodges. I'm afraid hunting has come too late to this area to be the solution.

Over dinner I tell Thomas my impressions about this fascinating place. First, there are too many people for most hunters to be comfortable. If the government wants a hunting industry to function properly, they need to look farther upstream, or up other rivers. They need to find unspoiled reaches of the watershed and open hunting territories there, where the social turmoil is not thick and ominous like the fog on the river that morning, where there is no talk of cutting out hearts ... and worse.

Thomas arranges for our backward journey tomorrow, to Puerto Maldonado, then from there to the high country to look for an animal called a Lidia bull. Huh? I ask again in case I've misunderstood: What the heck is a Lidia bull?

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