To get up-close to the multitude of wildlife in the Amazon rainforest, an experienced naturalist guide and well-organized river cruise excursions are a must.
On board an Amazon river cruise, first-time visitors are often amazed at the richness of wildlife in the great rainforest and its waterways. This World Wildlife Day (3 March 2019), we speak to the lead guide of the Aria Amazon river cruise ship, George Dávila, to get his list of must-see animals while cruising the Peruvian Amazon.
Wildlife #1: Common potoo
IUCN* Status: Least concern
If you’re not hiking into the Amazon forest with an Aqua Expeditions naturalist guide, you probably won’t be able to spot the common potoo. Also called the grey potoo, this nocturnal bird has feathers that remarkably resemble the color and texture of tree bark. In the day, it perches on a tree branch or stump, resting with its head in an upright position to completely blend in.
During the night, you might hear the distinctive warble of the common potoo — a harmonious song that varies in pitch and volume, as if they are warming up for a concert! Listen below:
*IUCN: International Union for Conservation of Nature
Wildlife #2: Pink river dolphin
IUCN Status: Endangered
The mostly unpopulated stretches of the Peruvian Amazon are one of the last refuges for the pink river dolphin, whose numbers are dwindling downriver due to killings by humans and lack of food due to fishing (again by humans).
At Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a healthy population of pink river dolphins find their safe shelter. More importantly, these highly intelligent creatures have built a rapport with us and enjoy our company every time we pass by or visit their habitats on an excursion. Guests aboard the Aria Amazon river cruise can expect very special encounters; these creatures often swim and leap out of the water — often in pairs — within touching distance of our skiffs.
Wildlife #3: Brown-throated sloth
IUCN Status: Least concern
An amazing Amazonian resident to see in the wild, the three-toed brown-throated sloth lives an unhurried life. The creature spends 15 to 18 hours a day sleeping in the trees, which may be during the day or night.
Taking things really slow, the sloth’s multi-chambered stomach and digestive systems require two weeks to digest one meal. The sloth, however, goes through the hassle of climb down to the forest floor every eight days to defecate — a habit that scientists haven’t been able to explain why.
In the sloth dating game, it’s the female who make the first moves, says George. When in the jungle, keep your ears peeled for their screams, which sound extremely human-like!
Wildlife #4: Black caiman
IUCN Status: Conservation Dependent
For all its intimidating looks, the black caiman was once hunted to near-extinction by poachers seeking its valuable leather. Today, laws that limit hunting and protection in places such as the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve are helping their numbers recover.
As one of the biggest crocodiles on Earth, black caimans can grow up to six metres (20 feet) long. As the largest predator in the Amazonian ecosystem, the black caiman is also considered a keystone species – one that plays an important role of maintaining the ecosystem’s structure. Besides preying on fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, our guides have also spotted smaller caimans being eaten by their own kind!
Wildlife #5: Amazonian manatee
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Although the manatee is on the checklist of every visitor to the Amazon, many of them usually miss the chance to see it in its natural habitat. Classified as a vulnerable species, it is estimated that less than 10,000 Amazonian manatees remain in the entire Amazon (300,000 square kilometres).
Fortunately, many of these manatees have settled in the calmer, shallower waters of the Peruvian Amazon, particularly in areas of nutrient-rich flooded forest away from the river’s main branch. On Aria Amazon’s excursions, skilled captains watchfully navigate skiffs in known manatee habitats, offering guests an opportunity to see the gentle mammals in the wild while ensuring the safety of these precious creatures.
Aqua Expeditions also actively supports the Manatee Rescue Centre in Iquitos, Peru, where our operations are based. The Center rescues and rehabilitates orphaned or injured manatees before releasing them back into the wild, and Aria Amazon guests can see the conservation efforts first hand at the Center, including the chance to feed the adorable and affectionate manatees.
Wildlife #6: Capybara
IUCN Status: Least Concern
With their seemingly unimpressed/uninterested facial expression, capybara are nevertheless highly social creatures. These rodents also live in large groups of about 20 to 30 and like to spend time dipping in the Peruvian Amazon’s waterways and mud banks in the day.
Capybaras can also remain submerged in water for five minutes and run as fast as a horse, which partly explains why they’re not an endangered species. Some locals hunt it for its meat and hide, not minding the fact that capybaras occasionally eat their own feces as a source of bacterial gut flora. We’re guessing these creatures have never heard of yogurt.
Wildlife #7: Paiche
IUCN Status: (Data deficient)
Nobody can say for certain how many paiche (arapaima gigas) fishes are in the Amazon, but that hasn’t stopped Amazon river communities from caring about the sustainability of this gigantic fish species. The paiche can grow up to 2 metres (6ft 7in) in length and weigh up to 200kg (441lbs), making it one of the largest fishes in the Amazon.
Ask any local and they will tell you how good the paiche tastes, so exercising restraint is paramount. On our luxury Amazon river cruises, renowned chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino delivers a world-class menu that features the paiche. At the same time, Aqua Expeditions is committed to conserving the species by working with local communities to practice sustainable fishing techniques and buying only from certified fish farms, where the paiche is nurtured to an optimal size for consumption.
Wildlife #8: South American Tapir
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
While not the prettiest looking animal, a sighting of the South American tapir in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest is special in its own right. Highly mobile on land and in water, tapirs are the most primitive large mammals in the world and have been around for 20 million years.
A relative of the rhinoceros, the South American tapir generally feeds only at night while hiding in the cool forest in the day. If these herbivores happen to be hungry, you can witness its unique way of eating; a long, flexible proboscis, or snout, grasps leaves, shoots, buds, fruit, and small branches.
A baby tapir’s appearance is very different from the older ones. Baby tapirs have brown fur with white stripes to help them blend into the rain forest floor and avoid predators. The white stripes fade as the calf matures, making it more visible to predatory jaguars, caiman and humans who capture the animal for its hide and meat — a fascinating instance of nature controlling an animal’s destiny.
In addition, deforestation and agricultural development outside the protected areas of the Amazon is driving numbers of the South American tapir down.
Wildlife #9: Agami Heron
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Classified as vulnerable, this elusive bird is on the IUCN Red List because of habitat loss in the Amazon, but in the protected Pacata Samiria National Reserve a handful of Agami heron flocks have found their sanctuary.
If you’re an avid birdwatcher, you’d be in good hands if you follow an Aqua Expeditions naturalist guide. “Agami herons is very shy, but they nest together in colonies of hundreds, sometimes thousands of nests. It’s quite amazing.” says George.
One of the Agami heron’s most distinctive behaviors is its courtship ritual, which both sexes participate in. The area between the eye and the bill of the bird can turn an intense red, while a silver crest can be seen on its neck.
Wildlife #10: Yellow-spotted Amazon river turtle
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Also known locally as taricaya turtles, the yellow-spotted Amazon river turtle had evolved differently; they protect themselves by folding their necks to the side under their shell (rather than retracting them backwards into the shell).
Currently listed as vulnerable, it seems that everybody wants to get their hands on the taricaya turtle. This is especially the case for hatchlings and juveniles, who are at high risk of predation by birds, snakes, large fish, frogs, mammals and humans. The turtles are especially vulnerable to illegal egg poaching.
Since 2012, Aqua Expeditions has been part of the Taricaya Turtle Project in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. Working closely with authorities at the Reserve, we have overseen the incubation of eggs and, with the help of our guests aboard the Aria Amazon, released more than 700 hatchlings safely into the wild. Guests can also “adopt” a turtle for US$5, the proceeds of which will help to fund this project together with our financial contribution.
Watch the video below to find out more about the Taricaya Turtle Project.
Cruising the Amazon river responsibly
Aqua Expeditions is committed to conservation in the ecologically sensitive regions of the Amazon as well as the Mekong river. In additional to wildlife preservation, we have adopted procedures to minimize environmental contamination and preserve the natural habitats and waterways through which we travel.
Our ships’ engines are the most fuel efficient, quiet, and virtually smoke free. We operate a specialized wet exhaust system to minimize the emission of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and reduce our carbon footprint. To minimize noise and vibration on board, our marine generators have been encapsulated. All these measures comply with the latest IMO and U.S. EPA standards.
Expedition skiffs come equipped with the latest ecologically sound outboard engines providing Three-Star Ultra-Low Emissions, as certified by the California Air Resource Board, and producing significantly lower emissions than engines meeting U.S. EPA standards.
All waste generated on our cruise ships is treated onboard in fully contained storage tanks that comply fully with IMO and U.S. Coast Guard standards. The result is 100% clean, sterile water that can safely be discharged into the rivers with remaining waste materials (unsuitable for treatment) collected for delivery at disembarkation for recycling or responsible disposal.