Puerto Alegría, PeruOn a wooden platform in a tiny village on the longest river in the world, a giant anteater slurps pink yogurt from a plastic bucket as a man shoves a selfie stick in its face.
A pair of blue macaws crunches on cheese puffs. A toucan nibbles a saltine cracker. Sixty tourists screech, squeal, and cackle as they paw at a menagerie of wild animals. Sloths cling to human necks. Monkeys scramble over heads and shoulders. On a bench two turtles strain for freedom under the weight of human hands.
While animals are passed among the crowd, camera shutters click, and selfie sticks jut out at all angles. A woman holds a juvenile caiman, mouth agape, next to the head of her infant child. A teenage girl chatters as she wraps an anaconda around her torso, fodder for a selfie video.
People throw tips in a bucket and head back down the platform stairs. They’ve had their fill, and manic excitement gives way to seeming indifference.
Spend days, even weeks, in the Amazon jungle and you may, if you’re lucky, see a wild sloth inching up a tree or catch the glow of a caiman’s eyes on the river at night. But coming face-to-face with any one of these animals is unlikely. All of them? Impossible.
Yet here atop this rickety platform on stilts along the banks of the Peruvian Amazon, such an experience is assured. This is a one-stop wildlife shop.
Puerto Alegría, a town with just 600 families, sits in a sun-drenched spot on the Amazon called Tres Fronteras—the Triple Frontier—where Peru, Colombia, and Brazil meet. Every day hundreds of tourists, mostly from the Colombian side of the river, arrive by boat, walk up wooden planks from the water to the shore, and clamor to hold and take photos with as many as a hundred captive wild animals of two dozen species.
The influx is an economic boon for Puerto Alegríans, at the ready with snacks and sodas, baskets for tips, and canteen shops filled with local crafts.
Wildlife tourism is big business, likely accounting for 20 to 40 percent of the global tourism industry’s annual value of $1.5 trillion, according to the World Tourism Organization.
Conservation and animal welfare groups agree that when an activity involving wildlife crosses the line from observation to interaction, it’s bad for the animals. In Southeast Asia riding elephants and petting captive tiger cubs, for instance, have drawn attention to the dark side of wildlife tourism.
Tourism in the Amazon is still in its infancy. In the huge Brazilian state of Amazonas, it accounts for just one percent of GDP. But prospering economies in Latin America and easier access through more frequent, affordable international flights mean that tourism—especially wildlife tourism—may be poised to explode.
The Amazon harbors more than 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity—400 species of mammals, 200 species of reptiles, and 1,300 species of birds. Tourists generally have two options for experiencing this bounty: the authentic way or the quick way. To see the raw, wild Amazon, people typically embark on a jungle excursion that lasts at least three or four days and can cost hundreds of dollars. For travelers short on time and money, the alternative is a day tour. Offered by dozens of travel agencies in each port town, most of these hit several spots in one day, providing a quick taste of the jungle.
What’s happening in Puerto Alegría is emblematic of a larger reality. In port towns throughout the region, local people snatch wild animals from the forest, keep them in cages, and haul them out by day for tourists to photograph and hold in exchange for tips.
In September 2016 researchers with the U.K.-based nonprofit World Animal Protection began a six-month investigation into animal tourism operations in Puerto Alegría and Manaus, a major Amazon port city in Brazil. The findings are documented in a report on their website and in an article published today by the online journal Nature Conservation.
In both places the researchers saw local people mistreating animals, putting their health and welfare at risk. They observed handlers gripping snakes tightly by the neck and clamping caimans’ jaws shut with rubber bands. In Puerto Alegría, investigators saw a caiman caged in a broken refrigerator, a manatee languishing in a kiddie pool, and one resident striking an anteater in the face.
The effects on sloths are particularly severe. These docile, delicate animals sleep up to 20 hours a day in the wild, and the stress caused by repeated handling by hyperactive tourists can be very damaging, says biologist Neil D’Cruze, head of policy at World Animal Protection and lead author of the report. Monique Pool, a sloth specialist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and director of the Green Heritage Fund Suriname, says that when sloths are handled by strangers, their hearts beat extremely fast, which can lead to their premature death.
Brazilian and Colombian laws are clear: It’s illegal to remove any animal from the wild to keep as a pet, and it’s illegal to keep a wild animal captive without a license. In Peru it’s illegal to make money from a captive wild animal. But the laws are not always enforced, especially on the Peru side of the river. Puerto Alegríans keeping wild animals in captivity, for example, have never been the object of a raid by wildlife authorities. Peru's wildlife agency did not respond to requests for comment.
Corpoamazonia, the Leticia-based Colombian governmental agency in charge of environmental protection, is aware of the exploitation of wild animals across the Peruvian border in Puerto Alegría, says Yamile Negeteye Silva. An administrator with the Amazonas division of Corpoamazonia, Silva believes some of the animals are brought to Peru from Colombia. “The river makes it easier to smuggle,” because there are virtually no border controls on the Amazon in Tres Fronteras. But the Colombian agency can’t intervene, even though the tourists mainly come from Colombia, because Puerto Alegría is in Peru.
UNDER THE STILTS
Larisa Campos is eight years old. Bright-eyed and smiley, she carries a clutch of neon schoolbooks and pencils under one arm. In the other she holds a sloth. A group of tourists has just left the platform at Puerto Alegría, and residents are gathering up their animals and heading home.
The sloth is still a baby, Larisa says, and he sleeps in a little house in the trees. Like everyone else in her town, Larisa lives in a modest wooden home built on high stilts to avoid rising waters during the rainy season.
At Larisa’s home I speak to her aunt, who’s relaxing in a hammock under the house. Like many others in the village, their family fishes for a living, she says. The sloth earns the family a bit of extra money from tourists. She too says he sleeps up in the trees; every morning, in her telling, the family calls for the sloth, and he moseys down the tree for breakfast.
D’Cruze says this is unlikely. It’s common, he says, for residents who keep captive animals to engage in “greenwashing”—telling reassuring stories to put a skeptical tourist’s mind at ease.
One thing about houses on stilts is that they add a whole new structural dimension: a place to string hammocks for lounging, store old furniture, stack cords of firewood—and stash cages for animals.
Leaving Larisa’s house, I follow chittering monkeys down the road, across a wooden bridge, and between a row of houses on stilts. Under one, in the shadows, sits a wooden cage. An animal is moving inside. I see the glint of humanlike eyes in the darkness. Claws—three on each paw—curl around wooden slats. A sloth. The cage is stark and pitch-black.
A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE
Among the many visitors I spoke to in Puerto Alegría, Manaus, and Leticia, or in transit on the river, almost all said they’d prefer to experience the jungle in as natural a way as possible but that day tours afford the opportunity to see many things in a short time.
Alejandra Giraldo, from Cali, Colombia, said she enjoyed visiting Puerto Alegría to grasp how the people live and to get a chance to hold and observe wild animals. But, she added, she found it troubling to see a toucan with its tail feathers cut. “I imagine the community does it so that it can't escape.” She paused. “Honestly, in my heart I know it's bad because they should be in nature.”
Others I spoke to admitted that although something about their tour didn’t feel quite right, the animals seem to be treated well enough on the visiting platform. Some also said they had no idea how the animals are kept the rest of the time.
That’s a big part of the problem, D’Cruze says: Tourists have such a brief window into these activities. They come for an hour, take photos, and then go home. Wild animals don’t express hurt the way humans do, so “the suffering simply may not register,” he says. Because of this, he says, it’s unrealistic to expect tourists to be able to identify welfare problems, especially when a local tour guide is sanctioning or encouraging the activity.
According to D’Cruze, the idea that this is a once-in-a-lifetime “when in Rome” chance helps suppress any nagging worries people might have. It just “takes someone with a polo shirt and a logo to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, everything's fine, don’t worry about it.’ And you say, ‘Oh, OK, I've just let all my apprehensions go.’”
Social media, such as Instagram and Facebook, adds another dimension. Renata Ilha, a Manaus-based investigator with World Animal Protection, says tourists want to share photos of their exotic experiences—hugging a sloth or being wrapped in an anaconda. “You don’t just want to be adventurous,” she says. “You want to be adventurous and show the world that you're adventurous.” Every time people share these photos on social media, they advertise an activity that on the surface looks harmless to their network of followers.
A spokesperson says Instagram has begun working with animal welfare experts and is looking at ways to inform its community about activities that can be harmful to animals, “such as posting content that may depict exploitation of wildlife and bad welfare practices.”
TOUR GROUPS: FEEDING THE BUSINESS
On Vacation Amazon is a sprawling, all-inclusive resort about a 20-minute boat ride downriver from Leticia. It’s in the middle of nowhere, without any real competition. One of 25 resorts throughout Colombia run by the On Vacation hotel chain, it attracts some 2,000 guests a month, mostly Colombians looking to get a feel for the jungle without having to rough it.
On Vacation Amazon's day trips are managed by a contractor called Selvatour, under the direction of Octavio Benjumea, who says the company has brought up to 150 guests to Puerto Alegría every day—the majority of the town’s visitors—since it opened six years ago.
He acknowledges that the animals are often in terrible shape. “Their fur falls out, they eat human food, and they're dying,” he says.
On August 8, when we spoke, Benjumea said that On Vacation Amazon had just told the Puerto Alegríans that if they didn’t stop showing animals within 30 days, the day tours would end. An On Vacation spokesperson says the company stopped offering tours to Puerto Alegría in early September and that any guests still going there are booking through other tour agencies. During the past month, however, On Vacation Amazon guests have posted selfies with captive animals on Instagram, geotagging Puerto Alegría and the hotel itself in consecutive photos.
On Vacation is not alone. Between September 2016 and February 2017, World Animal Protection found that 18 major tour agencies in Manaus—a city of two million people at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon—were ferrying tourists to a rural enclave on the Rio Negro called Januari Ecological Park. More a tiny community than a conventional park, Januari is home to a dozen families who rely on tourism to make a living.
Here the researchers saw caimans with their mouths bound shut and sloths tied to trees. The sloths they saw in Januari at the start of the investigation were replaced by new ones within months. D’Cruze says the first sloths had probably died.
Everything about three-toed sloths’ biology, behavior, and appearance makes it very hard for the average person to recognize when they’re suffering, D’Cruze says. They don’t thrash out or try to bite people holding them. “You combine that with the fact that they look like they're smiling, and people project onto them the fact that they want a hug. And that’s a killer combination. Literally."
In November 2016, IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental agency, fined six large tour companies a total of $425,000 for bringing tourists to interact with captive wild animals in Januari Ecological Park. In one raid, agents confiscated a juvenile sloth, two anacondas, a boa constrictor, and a caiman. They returned the reptiles to the wild and brought the sloth, too young to survive on its own in the forest, to IBAMA’s wild animal rehabilitation center in Manaus.
José Leland Barroso, chief inspector at IBAMA, says rescued animals can exhibit lasting trauma from their time in captivity. Snakes are often blind from camera flashes, he says. Snakes, unlike sloths, can be easily returned to the wild, “but if the snake is blind, it’s going to die of starvation at some point,” he says. He also says that the perpetrators typically just go out and catch new animals. “So we stopped confiscating the animals because we were shooting ourselves in the foot.”
But IBAMA’s raids have had effect. As of July some of the largest Manaus-based tour companies, such as Amazon Explorers and Amazon Day Tours, have stopped bringing tour groups to handle captive animals at Januari.
DON’T TOUCH THE DOLPHINS
Pink river dolphins, called botos in Spanish and Portuguese, are native to the waters of the Rio Negro. Photos of them are plastered all over tourism advertisements for Manaus. Swimming with dolphins is touted as the highlight of day-tour offerings.
When our tour boat pulls up to a floating dock in an inlet on the Rio Negro, a family of five local villagers is expecting us—and so are two pink dolphins already lured in with baitfish. Not quite pink, but grayish, the dolphins bob, mouths open, waiting for a snack. Because of the curve of their mouths, they seem to be smiling.
The eight tourists on my boat are giddy. They strap on life jackets, hop in the water, and surround the dolphins in a tight semicircle.
The handler dangles a fish above a dolphin’s mouth, pulling it away every time the animal tries to grab it. As the dolphin lifts itself out of the water, I see its badly scratched body. Our tour guide, Francisco Alvis, says these battle scars are common, the result of males fighting each other in a free-for-all for handlers’ treats. People squeal when their feet brush up against the dolphin’s body.
A posted sign tells tourists not to touch the dolphins, but every person in the water pets them repeatedly. No one tells the tourists to stop.
Such interactions are unsafe for both people and dolphins, says Vera da Silva, chief researcher at the Aquatic Mammals Laboratory, at the National Institute of Amazonian Research, in Manaus. The dolphins can weigh up to 400 pounds, swim fast, and dive deep. “Any accident,” da Silva says, can give handlers “reason to kill or repel them.” She says there’s also potential for diseases to be transmitted, from animal to human and vice versa.
No official regulations are in place, but legislation has been drafted that would ban tourists from feeding and touching the dolphins—and from entering the water at all. But new rules alone won’t solve the problem, D’Cruze says. Education is needed too. Many involved in the tourism industry have no understanding of animal welfare.
João Araújo, director of tourism for the city of Manaus, encourages swimming with dolphins if regulations are met. When I asked if he has concerns about the dolphins’ welfare, he said only that they aren’t aggressive so aren’t a danger to people.
As for the captive sloths, caimans, and anacondas being used in the Manaus area, Araujo said that though he discourages handling of these animals, he wasn’t even aware that it’s illegal.
A WAY OF LIFE
Luis Humberto Coello da Silva, who goes by Belo (“beautiful” in Portuguese) is 74. He has 18 children and dozens of grandkids. When I meet him, he’s sitting in a rocking chair on his rickety dock in a secluded enclave on the Rio Negro just outside Januari Ecological Park, where he’s lived his entire life.
Making ends meet is a challenge for people living in river communities on the Amazon, especially those of mixed European and indigenous ancestry—caboclos—like da Silva. Unlike the indigenous tribes who can offer tourists “authentic” experiences by virtue of their cultural traditions—their garb and ceremonies and thatched jungle homes—caboclos must find other ways to make some money.
As his little dog Pipoca (Portuguese for “popcorn”) hops around his feet, da Silva reminisces about his brushes with stardom: The Jennifer Lopez movie Anaconda was filmed on his property, he says, as were several wildlife programs. He’s been approached to star in various shows himself, he claims.
For 50 years he’s been welcoming tourists to his home. He once had a macaw named Burguette, who, he says, loved to drink Coca-Cola. And a caiman named Baú, which supposedly would come when da Silva called his name.
IBAMA agents confiscated them both and gave them to a zoo in Manaus. Da Silva says the only animals he has now are his fish, Juan and Juanita. They’re pirarucus, a famous Manaus breed, which grow to nearly 10 feet long. He keeps them in a concrete tank and lets tourists feed them for a small fee. They’ve been in this tank for 18 years, he says.
He says he’s never had any other animals but is quick to point out just how easy it is to catch them. Snakes can be snatched in fishing nets, and caimans are easy to grab by hand if they’re less than about four feet long. “When it’s bigger, you have to tie it up. That’s how I captured Baú.”
It’s also easy to catch three-toed sloths, he says, because they’re slow and docile. But he denies he’s ever kept sloths himself.
According to Ilha, of World Animal Protection, da Silva is one of a handful of local people in the Januari park who keep captive animals for selfie tourism. She says she’s seen sloths at his place as recently as late June. On one occasion, she says, she saw a sloth escaping from a dark shed next to da Silva’s house. The sloth was squeaking. “It’s so rare to see this because they only make noise when they’re very stressed,” Ilha says, adding that one of da Silva’s daughters spotted the sloth, yanked it by a limb, and threw it back into the shed.
Ilha says she’s been trying to persuade da Silva to find other ways to make money from visitors, by offering bird-watching opportunities, for instance, but “he’s stuck on the idea of getting another caiman.”
Alcimar Oliveira, 29, lives just downriver from da Silva. A small tour boat is tethered to his dock, and half a dozen tourists are passing a sloth around. Oliveira grips a boa constrictor by the neck as he stretches it out on the wooden dock for a tourist to photograph. Another man slaps the boa’s tail repeatedly on the ground. The snake reflexively curls it up each time.
“It’s only me and Belo who have the animals now,” Oliveira says.
Oliveira says the big tour agencies haven’t come as much recently because of IBAMA’s raids, but the smaller groups still come regularly. The animals are the draw, but it’s his handicrafts —indigenous masks and carved wooden animal figurines—that account for most of the $250 he makes a month.
“Without the animals, no one would come here,” he says. He’d have to move to Manaus, where his crafts would look the same as everyone else’s and he’d have to pay high rent for a display table. “People from other places don’t understand how our life works, so they say bad things about us.” Oliveira complains that IBAMA often sends in agents from São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. “They don’t know our reality,” he says.
“People who are born in the community should stay here,” da Silva says. “The caboclo lives a better life in the jungle. He can build a house, raise chickens, eat fish, grow a plantation field, and live a good life.”
A COMMUNITY TRANSFORMED
In Colombia, just downstream and across the river from Puerto Alegría, some people have figured out how to thrive by helping animals instead of harming them.
When you arrive at Mocagua, an indigenous settlement of about 650 people, you could just as easily be in Puerto Alegría: same muddy riverbanks, same rickety wooden gangplanks, same language. The Mocaguans used to hunt yellow woolly monkeys so intensely for their meat that the species nearly went extinct here.
But in 2004 the Mocaguans and people in surrounding communities voluntarily agreed to stop hunting the endangered species, in partnership with the newly formed Maikuchiga Foundation and its founder, the Colombia-based primate biologist Sara Bennett. Maikuchiga, a towering wooden structure in the jungle behind Mocagua, is the first and only rehabilitation center for rescued monkeys in Colombia.
Gradually former hunters became guides, using their expertise on the monkeys’ behavior to inform visitors. People painted their homes with colorful portraits of wild animals, and a few modest guesthouses opened. Every visitor to Mocagua pays two dollars to the local co-op fund. The money is used for community improvement projects.
Maikuchiga is now rehabilitating eight monkeys, brought here by Corpoamazonia, Colombia’s environmental protection agency, and by local people who rescued the animals from the pet trade or from poachers.
Leoncio Sanchez Bolivar, born and raised in Mocagua, has handled all operations at the center since the beginning. He says the center once took in a sick monkey from Puerto Alegría, but she died after having seizures, which he believes were triggered by malnutrition.
Maikuchiga charges $40 for a group of up to six visitors and depends on volunteers—often tourists who want a meaningful Amazonian experience—to help with day-to-day operations.
The center is struggling financially, but Sanchez Bolivar doesn’t want to open it up to big tour operations like On Vacation. He sees them as complicit in allowing places like Puerto Alegría to thrive.
“It would be great to expand from here and offer help to other communities that need it,” he says, adding that a key is making an effort to understand the specific circumstances of each place. World Animal Protection’s Renata Ilha agrees. “It’s important to find what’s right for these people, this community, this place,” she says.
But the onus is also on the tourists themselves, she says. Although IBAMA’s raids have seen a decrease in hands-on activities in Januari, as long as people in the Amazon continue to seek “fast-food tourism,” animals are likely to suffer.
Mocagua isn’t the only place working to offer tourists a natural taste of the Amazon for a modest fee. In Manaus, there’s an option that doesn’t even require people to leave the city.
Museu da Amazonia is a roughly 25-acre patch of jungle—part of the much larger Adolfo Ducke Forest Reserve—right on the edge of the city. Visitors can take a taxi there, pay $10, and immediately be swept into pristine rain forest.
Here you might see a wild animal, or you might not. Heading in with my field guide Marina Souza, I feel as if I've been transported into the Amazon of a Percy Fawcett memoir.
It’s dusk, and we arrive at a clearing where a giant steel staircase shoots up into the trees. We start to climb. The frogs are deafening. We pass hanging vines, and ferns, and treetops, which give way to taller trees. We continue up, legs burning, frogs screaming. I’m in disbelief that trees can possibly be this tall.
Eventually 500-year-old trunks give way to leafy tops, and then, all of a sudden, treetops give way to sunbeams. We’re above the canopy, on a platform with a 360-degree view of the Amazon rain forest. Look out beyond the canopy, and there’s Manaus, smoke billowing from stacks, fading into the orange sky. Beyond that, the Rio Negro. What’s across the river? I ask Marina. “Nothing,” she says. Just jungle. I snap a selfie. I want to remember this moment.