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Dense foliage lines the Samiria River, which runs through one of the largest tracts of protected land in Peru. (Photograph by Roberto Soncin Gerometta, Getty Images)

Eco Heroes of the Peruvian Amazon

I’m journeying in a skiff along the Pacaya River in the Peruvian Amazon when tan and orange tents suddenly pop up above the shoreline, calling attention to several people standing nearby. Campers, I think.

Farther along, a man beaches his canoe, climbs out and walks with determination straight into the woods. When I inquire as to where he’s going, he explains that he’s headed to an oxbow lake deep in the bush. A fisherman, perhaps. But where’s his rod?

My hypotheses are wrong on all accounts.

These seemingly mundane activities, in fact, are part of a purposeful patrol mission to protect the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, one of the largest tracts of protected land in Peru at more than five millions acres. Thanks to these paid and volunteer rangers, only two percent of this green swath brimming with mahogany and cedar trees has been logged.

Home to a diverse clutch of ecosystems–bamboo forest, terra firma (high ground protected from flooding), and palm swamp forest among them–the reserve resembles a wetland owing to oodles of oxbow lakes. More than half of the Pacaya-Samiria is comprised of these crescent-shaped water bodies punctured by tributaries, some choked with water hyacinths during this low water season.

Everything adapts in this environment, even the walking catfish–curious creatures with armored bodies and outsize pectoral fins–that can scuttle across land, breathing air for some 24 hours. When an oxbow lake dries up, these fish simply “walk,” single file, up and over it to find sustenance.

The small skiff, manned by Johnny Balarezo Malatesta, a native Peruvian naturalist with International Expeditions, motors into an immense oxbow lake. Johnny wildly points to the shore where a brown mammal is grazing along with three babies–capybaras, Johnny says, the largest rodents in the world.

The adult munches on its favorite food, graminia grass, before it suddenly turns and dives into the water. In moments, the hundred-pound creature is crawling up the slope on the far shore. Quite the aquaphile, the capybara is an efficient underwater swimmer that can also easily walk across the muddy bottom.

Positioned at the bow of our boat, binoculars at the ready, Johnny searches the trees for the hoatzin, a pre-historic bird that’s said to have aphrodisiac properties if consumed. But with its foul odor and meat that’s reputed to have an unpleasant taste, there’s no worry that anyone would hunt it. (Like a cow, it’s a ruminant with an enormous gullet–50 times the size of its stomach–used to break down the abundance of leaves in its diet.)

Johnny’s binoculars lock on a branch bearing what looks like a group of pheasants, each wearing a punky crown of feathers. Success: A family of these odd-looking birds with several juveniles.

Whether perching on floating logs, strutting along the shore, alighting on twigs high in the tree canopy, or skittering across the water, birds are abundant in this reserve. Positioned on a stump, an anhinga spreads its wings to dry them out. Iridescent blue and yellow macaws soar overhead.

A great egret flies beside us, parallel to our skiff until we tie up beside three canoes–more ranger boats. This shore bears their station: two thatch structures built atop tall stilts, one for living and the other for dining, connected by a plank about as wide as a balance beam.

Closer to the coast, two sand-filled wooden pens look unoccupied but they bear a vital purpose that’s a hallmark of conservation efforts: incubating 30,000 turtle eggs. Every station collects eggs from the sand bars, and eventually releases the hatchlings onto the reserve’s beaches.

These rangers patrol a nearby oxbow lake that offers up a rare opportunity to see one of the Amazon’s most glorious creatures. A slim dorsal fin slices through the water. In a split second, it’s gone. Johnny excitedly shouts, “Pink dolphin, pink dolphin, pink dolphin!”

Several more of the rose-hued freshwater mammals surface and disappear so swiftly they’re difficult to photograph. It’s believed that these Amazon river dolphins, as they’re also known, may owe their pastel hue to close-to-the-surface capillaries. Thankfully, a widespread local belief that doom and gloom will be visited upon dolphin hunters keeps their populations healthy.

Basking in such an idyllic landscape, it’s easy to become complacent, but you can’t get too comfortable here because the flora and fauna are ever threatened.

We pay a visit to a pagoda-shaped building (a Japanese architect and several Japanese scientists provided the Eastern influence) where a sign identifying this ranger station as PV-2–PV standing for Point of Vigilance–says it all. Ranger Tulio Sima tells us that poachers were spotted in this area two months ago. He caught them red-handed.

These eco guardians in their boats are making a difference. But there’s a lot of land to protect and very few of them to go around.

Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer who writes for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel and on her blog

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