Eating dirt

Manu: Geophagy, it’s called, the practice of eating dirt. Turns out that ‘eating dirt’ is not a metaphor for humiliation (or not just) but a proper thing to do with a nice technical name to boot. In fact, people have been eating clay, chalk and mud for millennia around the world to neutralise food toxins, aid digestion (think: Pepto-Bismol and kaolin) and supplement nutrients during pregnancy.

Local Peruvian women
and a man with his headgear
In fact, hats are something of a speciality in the Peruvian Andes

Animals too, eat dirt, as the Ancient Greek philosopher Galen reported in the second century. Everything from butterflies to birds, monkeys to elephants congregate at specific sites to munch on the earth, getting valuable minerals including calcium and sodium.

Woman in the market, from the front...
...and back

For wildlife lovers, these sites represent a great opportunity to view the visiting fauna – and Manu, the most biologically intact and undisturbed part of the Amazon rainforest, has a few clay licks we’re eager to see. Animals from bush dogs to peccaries and frogs have been observed using the licks here.

Guinea pigs for sale
but not as pets...

We set off from Cusco on a road that’s narrow and precipitous enough to put Bolivia’s World’s Most Dangerous Road to shame. It rises to a high mountain pass and then descends in an endless series of switchbacks through alpine grasslands and then into the delightfully named ‘elfin forest’ (disappointing lack of elves). The forest is so-named for its strangely gnarled, twisted and stunted trees, which are actually centuries-old and enrobed in dripping epiphytes in every shade of green – very fairytale landscape despite absence of the little folk.

We pass a large pre-Columbian burial site
It is thought to belong to the Tiwanaku people who lived here in 200 AD

Researchers have constructed vast nets here to entrap bats for study, but which also hinder our progress, so we return from the forest back to the road and continue our descent. Acjanaco, at 3500 metres above sea level, is continually in cloud, damp, cool, yet full of vibrant pink and red fuchsias that attract hummingbirds.

The village of Paucartambo has sculptures showing the local dances
It's the last colonial village before the jungle starts
Bridge over a river in the cloud forest
Bridge over a river in the cloud forest

Looking across the Madre de Dios at Manu

It is also the entrance to Manu national park, a protected area since 1973 (ancient for Peru) and home to a dazzling biodiversity, including at least 1800 different bird species (more than any other protected area on Earth – there are only about 10,000 bird species worldwide), 13 primate species, 400 ant species and various indigenous human tribes, including 100s of ‘uncontacted’ people, who choose to live a hunter-gatherer existence without the cultural and disease-carrying influence of more recent forest colonisers. (In 1984, large numbers of the Yora tribe died of flu after contact with gold miners.)

Slipper orchids

Waterfalls, mosses, lichens and a plethora of orchids bring us into cloud forest, which here is home to a ‘lek’ (regular bird gathering) of Peru’s national bird, the bizarre, charismatic cock-of-the-rock, or tunqui, a bright amber bird whose eyes seem to be planted halfway up its neck, giving it the appearance of being more brainless than other birds. They dance impressively for us – well, actually, for the females; it’s mating season – and call out with an ugly chicken-like noise.

Peru's national bird is a charismatic fellow with a head-bobbing dance

Before long, we have reached the heat, humidity and intense green foliage of the rainforest proper. The trouble with travelling through rainforests is that it involves leaving the world we have so perfectly ordered around we nice clean humans. We become, on entering a rainforest, just another ill-prepared piece of flesh wandering around for anything to take bites out of, inhabit or incubate their eggs in. We are soon bitten to swollen lumps by mosquitoes, blackfly, sandflies, horseflies… Malaria is not a big problem here, but botfly, leishmaniasis and other troubles too horrible to go into are. We spray DEET with the thoroughness of a 17-year-old boy with aftershave on a first date, but still they bite us.

The violet-eared hummingbird
Booted racket-tail hummingbird
Almost impossible to catch them in flight
but Nick perseveres

We are in the Amazon river basin now, beyond the Andes (home to the Incan-dubbed ‘Antis’ people, who lived in the ‘Antisyo’ (jungle)) and protected here in the 1970s by the son of Polish zoologist, Jan Kalinowski, who in the late-1800s escaped imprisonment in Russia (where he was sent for the suspicious spy-like behaviour of creeping around the Russian wilderness while recording animal behaviour) by acquiring for the Russian Tzar the fantastic prize of a giant (dead and stuffed) Siberian polar bear. On achieving his freedom, Kalinowski wisely fled to Peru, married a Cusqueña and sired 18 children, one of whom created the Manu protected reserve.

Turtles line the riverbank
Capuchin monkey

Now, thanks to the policies of incumbent president Alan Garcia, roughly 70% of the country’s portion of the Amazon is given over to oil concessions, there are 17 planned hydrodams (70 are planned for the Amazon as a whole) and the nearly completed Interoceanic Highway linking the Atlantic to the Pacific via Brazil and Peru threatens the area further, passing through two of the largest protected areas. Last June, a clash between protesters and police in Bagua over Garcia’s suspension of the forest and wildlife law, enabling oil company access to the Amazon, killed more than 30 and left hundreds injured. A few weeks ago, a British missionary, Paul McCauley, working with Amazonian people was expelled from the country for helping indigenous people to stand up to oil incursions.

Salvador Lake at dawn
We find a group of playful giant otter youngsters

The last couple of decades have seen an escalating boon in ‘illegal’ gold mining in the area – indeed, the lower Madre de Dios river (which flows into Boliviar, becoming the Beni river, and then into Brazil, where it joins the Amazon river) is now a cacophony of mining activity, growing slum camps with malaria, prostitution and HIV, and a notable absence of wildlife. Around 40,000 tons of mercury is poured into this river annually as impoverished 12-hour-a-day workers process the earth for gold (the workers keep 25%).

Beautiful scarlet macaws
They gather in the bamboo above the clay lick

The future does not look well for this incredible forest, its people and animals. “This is one of the very few parts of the Amazon that was protected before it was impacted by hunting and logging – it’s one of the last places that you can see mahogany trees standing tall. The area from the cloud forest down is pristine and it’s still fantastic for bird watching, in a way that, say, England isn’t,” says British-born ornithologist Barry Walker of the Manu Wildlife Centre, who’s lived in the area and studied its birds for more than 20 years. “The Hunt Oil, Houston, concession is a serious threat.” Hunt Oil are exploring for oil and gas at the edge of the park.

They eat the clay for its minerals to aid digestion

Walker, who graduated from a Manchester childhood spent collecting birds’ eggs to full-on twitcherhood, describes arriving in Peru for the first time in the late 1970s, where he fell head-over-heals for the Amazon and its abundant birdlife. “Many species were completely unknown, it was so little-studied,” he says. “The habit of early ornithology was simply to shoot a bird, take it back to the city and give it a name. So no one knew whether the bird lived on the ground or in trees, what its call was or mating behaviour. It was hugely exciting.”

He joined celebrated Amazon ornithologist Ted Parker, of Louisiana University, in birding trips into the forest where they spent years recording birdsong on an analogue tape-recorder, tracking its singer and taking notes of the bird for later identification in the Lima museum of stuffed birds. Together, they recorded hundreds of birdsongs and described unknown behaviours of more.

An old covered boat - the meandering river changed its course leaving it high and dry

It was researchers at Manu Wildlife Centre who first made detailed reports of tapirs using the clay licks, as well as the first reported sightings of black spider monkeys eating clay. Now, researchers are discovering geophagy in more and more primates, indeed it may be that it is the rule rather than the exception to eat dirt.

Bolivian howler monkeys eating clay at the river bank

We head down river from the upper Rio Madre de Dios to the greater Manu river in a canoe that requires heaving over the riverbed every now and again due to the low water level. Along the way, we spy cormorants, colourful yellow ‘oro pendula’ birds that weave hanging nests, turtles and herons. We overnight in a series of forest lodges and the Manu park’s only tented site (owned by Walker) and rise early to visit a high bank of clay visited by hundreds of squawking macaws and parrots. It’s an impressive sight: a blast of colour and sound, with my favourite being the scarlet macaws. These monogamous birds arrive in pairs or in threes (son or daughter in tow) to the lick, where they hang on to the wall and seem to manage to eat and shout at the same time.

The roots of a huge strangler fig

It’s an important social and mating spot for the birds – those chaperoned youngsters will likely find a partner for life at the clay wall, and this is breeding season.

The woolly monkey, one of 13 primate species at Manu

Downstream from the Manu river, we surprise a group of orang utan-coloured Bolivian howler monkeys, lounging on the bank, eating the clay with audible scoffing. This is the peak season for clay-eating, Barry explains, because in mid-winter (well into the dry season), tasty, easily digestible fruits and berries are hard to find. The animals are forced to eat more of the toxin-loaded leaves and fibrous fruits that are hard to digest. Clay minerals seem to help that process. In birds, the grit may provide extra help in the gizzard; in mammals, it’s likely that the minerals and alkaloids help make the plant nutrients more bioavailable.

Nick waits in the too-comfy hide

The biggest treat is reserved for the Manu Wildlife Centre, though, where there is a mammals clay lick. The lick is most active at night, which means leaving the comfort of the lodge for an hour-long trek into the forest to a specially built hide. It is perfectly located just metres from the clay lick and as night falls, we make ourselves comfortable. Only problem is it’s a little too comfy. Barry has placed mattresses and pillows under the mosquito nets and it’s not long before there’s a loud, tapir-scaring snoring from our designated photographer. I nudge Nick awake, and we try to concentrate on singling out tapir noises from the sirens of cicadas, rumble and croaks of frogs, swishing of bats and, I’m sure, roaring of nearby jaguars.

Two tapirs visit the lick! Both wading knee-deep in clay
Taking a big mouthful of clay
Eating mud is a mucky business

Eventually, there’s a rustle in the forest and in the thin torchlight we see not one, but two tapirs – a mother and baby. They chomp away at the clay for perhaps 20 minutes, twitching their noses and huffeting around like hippos. It’s magical, and when they eventually leave, we stay another couple of hours hoping for a revisit.

Dinner plate sized whip-tail scorpion we encounter by torchlight

Walking back in the blackness, trying to avoid sci-fi movie calibre beasties and not step on bullet ants, army ants, scorpions, etc, we marvel at our sighting. Tapirs, the South American indigenous horse, travel miles to visit a clay lick. Will they still come if the area is invaded by oil companies and those who follow the new Interoceanic road, such as loggers, animal poachers and hunters? In Brazil, a 50-metre-wide halo of deforestation follows roads into the Amazon, according to 2008 research.

Puerto Maldonado (and Nick)
The majority of vehicles are rickshaws, but that'll change when the Interoceanic Highway is completed
Slash and burn soot fills the air around Puerto Maldonado

It takes us most of the day to get from the pristine jungle to the frontier town of Puerto Maldonado, a dusty outpost peopled with staggering drunks (from 8am, although they are of the friendly rather than aggressive variety) and strip clubs, hardware stores and delicious ice cream shops.

Boatmen ferry passengers across the river, but a new bridge is being built to link Brazil and Peru
Working on the bridge

Nick takes an instant dislike to the place, but we find a decent laundry for our filthy rags and I spot two small frogs sharing the overflow drain slot of our hostel sink, so all’s good.

A frog in my sink

4 thoughts

  1. Sounds like a dream trip, you have no idea how jealous I am! I live in Georgia and was surprised to learn recently that Savannah is the biggest exporter of kaolin clay anywhere, much of which goes into the gastroprotectant Kaopectate. Birds, it seems, are not the only ones who eat dirt.

      1. Apparently its just really good quality silicates. They use it as a pigment enhancer in paint and as a base for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, too.

        I just learned that they no longer put it in Kaopectate – they recently changed to bismuth instead, which is the same active ingredient as Peptobismol

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