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(All pictures from internet)

I was in Brazil to meet Cristina’s family with a second objective to collect plants potentially useful against tropical diseases. In Paraiso do Norte, my friend and guide Joachim Cardoso (known as “José Cigano” as his wife was Romano) told stories of jaguar hunters who used to come by their farm each year when he was young. These were brothers on horseback who made their living removing predators troubling farms in the region. Joachim’s father had a coral for horses and the jaguars had been taking their toll, so the brothers were hired.

They awoke before dawn and lay in wait near the corral. Sure enough, a jaguar appeared, so one of the brothers stood up and took careful aim. But the jaguar had spotted him and was racing in his direction; it was stopped cold by the first bullet. The hunter then immediately stepped back and took aim again at the cloud of dust left behind. Turns out jaguars sometimes hunt in pairs, and he killed the mate as it attacked him out of the cloud of dust.

I had been searching for a tree known as “quina” (quinine) used to treat malaria. I didn’t think the quinine tree grew that far down the Amazon, more of an upper Amazon species, but quinine was in a family of plants I was especially eager to find (the same family gives us coffee and ipecac as well as having a number of known toxic species). It was around that time that I became aware of the downside of huge tropical forest diversity: many plants and animals were rare and hard to find which is why we continue to discover new ones each year. Sometimes it seemed that every plant was different. All I knew of the quina tree was that it was tall, had a sulcated (winged) trunk with bitter bark that cured malaria, and was treasured though very rare. Joachim suspected that those who knew where there was a tree might not be willing to reveal it, but perhaps the jaguar hunter would as he had travelled the region more than anyone he had met.

Over Easter of 1984, Cristina took the bus up to Paraiso do Norte from Sao Jose dos Campos, two days to the south. I think this may have been her second visit over the years I was in the north of Brazil. Cristina and I set out for Cristalandia to head west to the Rio Araguaia, the second tributary south of the Rio Amazonas counting from the mouth in Belem back. We spent the night in the Ford pickup which had a wonderful marine plywood camper on the back that Lawrence Brooke and I had built over many months in Cristina’s family’s backyard. It had two beds, an LP gas refrigerator, twin burner stove. Campers were unknown in Brazil at that time, so it caused quite a sensation wherever we went and news travelled fast. The next morning a teenager approached me and offered to show me the crystal mines, showing me examples of perfect, clear, amorphous quartz the size of tennis balls. Cristina and I drove there with him to find an open pit perhaps 150’ across but deep with a basket hoist that lowered workers up and down. Americans had come there during the last war to get perfect quartz for bomb site viewers for their airplanes. I still have two big lumps of quartz from there that I treasure. This was the last outpost, the last food and water as we headed west.


The next two nights we spent at Lagoa de Confusao, a large freshwater lake surrounded by palm trees. Lakes are most uncommon in Brazil, and unmoving fresh water was avoided because of the dangers of schistosomiasis (African snail flukes). Apparently this lake was safe so I took a bit of a swim, being careful not to put my feet on the bottom in case of sting rays. I don’t think Cristina joined me. The single track dirt road west ran through marshes to either side, dotted with palms. The road was a place for caiman alligators to sun bathe, and they slid off to the side in droves as we made our way. We saw some jaguartirica, many toucan relatives (aracari) and were surprised by one giant toucan right outside the driver’s window as we passed. Storks, egrets, herons were everywhere, and at dusk, so were mosquitoes – the kind that land pointed vertically, the kind to avoid. We pressed on through the night. After a few hours, getting sleepy, the road suddenly disappeared ahead and we screeched to a halt. When we got out, we found the road simply disappeared into the Rio Araguaia which was deep and wide. We managed to turn around and find a flat spot to spend the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next morning someone was knocking on the side of the camper calling for whoever was inside. Turns out we had parked on the landing strip and had to move. When we got out, we were greeted by a man who said he was the town’s mayor. As the only habitation we could see was a small one-room cabin on the banks of the river, we took this with a grain of salt. He showed us his generator that kept his freezer full of fish cold. Nearby on the shore were rows of trout-sized fish, each with a hole behind and under the eye where the local Indians had shot them from dugout canoes with bow and arrow, all in exactly the same place. He had traded for them with honey he’d brought from town.

When we asked after the jaguar hunter, he said yes, he lived nearby, but as it was cattle roundup season, he might be hard to find, but he gave us directions.

Later that day some children along the river were showing us their ankles with holes the size of melon balls from piranha attacks. They warned us not to enter the water, but to bathe with a bucket. Then we heard a sound like a horse snorting in the river, turned, but saw nothing. Eventually we tracked it down to fresh water porpoises. Some of the fish in the Araguaia are huge (200 Kg), and it was known as a fishing paradise. The mayor told us about the bridge they were building across the river to the Ilha de Bananal, largest fresh water island in the world. It was to be constructed right where we almost entered the river the night before. The government had brought heavy equipment onto the island to start construction, but each night the Indians would tie it up with lianas that would take the whole next day to remove. This went on until the government gave up. The island by rights was an Indigenous Reservation (tapirape and karaja), but some local politicians had their eye on it as a summer grazing ground for cattle. I have some tapirape masks and a headdress in my living room; they look similar to these below.

In the afternoon we set out again in search of our jaguar hunter on a dirt path through the scrub. This was without tall trees and was quite different from the treed savannas I was used to further east. We were fortunate to find an encampment and our hunter was there.

I guessed he was in his mid-seventies, a fit, energetic man with gray hair and stories to tell. The only one I remember was how he would lay his hammock a couple of feet off the ground with some clothes and blanket, then set another hammock higher in the tree where he would wait. When jaguars attacked the hammock below, he would shoot them.
He certainly knew the quina tree, though there were none growing nearby, and he was sorry that he was too occupied with the roundup to help us in our plant hunt. As we left, an old woman ran out of the house, smoking a cigar, wanting to hear news from town, wanting to chat. Turns out she was the hunter’s mother, certainly in her 90s.
Cristina’s vacation was ending, so we headed back to town. On the way out, we saw a great animal in the road, something unlike anything I knew. It paused to look at us as we approached – a beautiful tamandua bandeira (see below).

A year later, I finally found and collected the fabled quina. Not from the quinine family at all, but rather from the group that we are unfamiliar with except the very distant relatives, the milkweeds. For a few years I had a long section of the very dense quina wood which I intended to use as a new pickaxe handle, but that was left behind when Cristina’s family sold their house in Sao Paulo. I still have the quina extract and a pressed herbarium specimen, unfortunately no photos.

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