The true Queen of the Amazon

A dark shadow envelopes the canoe and the first of the raindrops bounce off the deck. There are just seconds to take cover as this is the Amazon where rain hits with the ferocity of a freight train.

The water starts to pool in the bottom of the canoe and I wonder which of us will triumph. Will the rain stop as suddenly as it started or will I be forced to stop and bail water from the canoe? My chin is tucked in close to my chest and a steady stream of water runs from the peak of my cap bouncing off my nose. There isn’t another soul on the river, not of the human species anyway.

The canoe slices through the water, the only sound a slight splash as the water parts. It is enough to alert the Red Howler monkeys who set off a series of deafening roars across the jungle. Every living creature within a three-mile radius now knows of my approach.

There is something quite remarkable about coming face to face with wildlife. It is that moment when you and the animal stop, look at each other and share some sort of connection. This is when time slows down, you become oblivious to the outside world, and you are lost in nature.

Most animals flee in surprise as I approach, but sometimes, certain animals, especially those with the bravado of a fox, come closer. The human brain is an amazing entity that works on a database of pre-existing information. So, when the first thing I registered were black stripes and a round face my brain said, “Mmm. Interesting! An extinct Tasmanian Tiger, crossed with a raccoon with the demeanor of a fox living in French Guiana?”

The novelty of seeing a human paddling down the river on a brightly coloured green and gold log was enough to tempt the curious crab dog (Cerdocyon thous) from its den. It was as inquisitive about me, as I was about it. It looked at the canoe and tilted its head thoughtfully as if to say, “I haven’t seen one quite like that before.” Then it took a good look at me, made that magic moment of eye contact, and after ten seconds or so, trotted its stout little legs off into the undergrowth.

A crab dog eats crabs, especially during the wet season. Other times it eats rodents, birds, turtle eggs, fruit, eggs, crustaceans, insects, and lizards. About the only thing it doesn’t eat is livestock, but mind-bogglingly, farmers shoot them anyway. They have a fluffy tale that stands erect when they are excited, but fortunately for them, their pelt isn’t as stimulating, so they have been largely spared from hunters’ sights, unlike others in their genus who were made into some type of garment and are now extinct.

The wild rivers where they live is a world where fantasy meets reality and surprise rests around every corner.

I almost leapt from my canoe with fright when a Giant otter materialised like the periscope of a surfacing submarine only metres from my boat to give me an angry warning snort. I stopped dead. The otter dived and resurfaced twenty metres away. When he had calculated I was at a safe distance he turned and hot tailed it after his family.

animal-21934_1280Family life is important to Giant otters which explains why they have few predators. Neither an anaconda, caiman or jaguar will attack a young otter when there is a chance it will be confronted by the entire family.

Male otters might swim like torpedoes and be strong, curious and brave, but it is the alpha female who is the undisputable Queen of the river regulating the hunt, resting and sleeping periods. She and her family look to lead a charmed life, and it is true that they spend much of their day playing, kicking back and fishing.

However, they remain in the “endangered” category of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, meaning that their numbers are expected to halve by 2030. No longer hunted for their chocolate coloured, velvet-like fur as they were from the ‘50’s to ‘70’s, they now face a new threat of habitat destruction and pollution mostly due to the gold rush that has swept across most regions of South America.

It isn’t just seeing wildlife from the water that is exciting. Stumbling upon the tell-tale signs of how wildlife goes about its daily business is exciting too, especially seeing the footprints of ocelots and the trails of the capybara, the largest rodent in the world.

Yet, despite my best efforts to drift along the rivers unnoticed, I am yet to spot the Ninja cat of the Amazon.

But I know, without doubt, a jaguar would have spotted me.

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Donna Mulvenna is a horticulturalist and nature writer living in the Amazon rainforest in French Guiana and the author of Wild Roots - Coming Alive in the French Amazon, and Happiness is Green (Stormbird Press, 2017) Her writing offers a close-up glimpse into the fascinating world within the Amazon rainforest, and reveals the profound effect a personal connection with the natural world can have on each of us. When she isn’t writing from her treetop office she is hurtling along the wild untamed rivers in a sprint canoe. Follow her on twitter @donnamulvenna or facebook: donnamulvennaauthor/

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