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In the Colombian Amazon, Indigenous communities protect the sacred black caiman

  • In the Curare-Los Ingleses Indigenous Reserve, two communities are working to protect the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger), a species that has been hunted for decades for its commercially valuable skin.
  • After 14 years of fighting to protect the caiman’s habitat, in January 2022, the communities carried out the first-ever survey of the species, recording 123 specimens of various ages.
  • Local leaders say the community’s children will soon be able to learn about the caiman not only in a new book with illustrations and information from the conservationists’ work — but also in real life.

For the Indigenous peoples of Colombia’s lower Caquetá River, the lakes of Puerto Caimán form a huge maloca, a cultural and spiritual hub. This watery habitat is home to the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger), a sacred animal in their culture. According to local elders, “grandfather caiman” was once a man who came down to Earth from a planet of clouds and became the creature that today rules over the water and the fish.

“He has remained a being of important value; he is sacred,” says Moisés Yucuna, an elders from the Borikada community. “That’s why, wherever he is, in the depths of streams or lakes — where there is no river current and where they can be left in peace — there is an abundance of fish. He is the master of everything, governing the other animals. The fish always follow their grandfather caiman; they surround them, keeping close to their grandparents.”

In the non-municipalized area of La Pedrera in the northeast of the Amazonas department, located along the border with Brazil and on the lower Caquetá River, is the Curare-Los Ingleses Indigenous Reserve. For years, those in the territory have been working to preserve and protect this reptile that, for decades, was hunted for its coveted skins, which almost led to it disappearing from the area.

Team of co-researchers taking part in the first black caiman survey. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, since 2000 the black caiman has been categorized as “lower risk.” It is, however, “conservation dependent” to prevent it from becoming endangered again.

In 2008, the reserve’s two communities — Borikada and Curare — organized themselves into groups in order to monitor and care for the black caiman and the sacred sites it inhabits. But, back then, they were unaware of the reptile’s conservation status. In light of this, many years later they asked for support from Conservation International, an organization they had worked with previously. In January 2022, as part of the Amazonia Verde project, the first population survey of the species was carried out in Puerto Caimán, a system of three dark, highly acidic blackwater lakes.

The survey reported sightings of 123 individuals of different ages, including at least 18 adults, 26 subadults, 16 juveniles and 18 hatchlings. The largest caiman reached 5.7 meters (18.7 feet), while the smallest measured 23 centimeters (9 inches).

A black caiman (Melanosuchus niger). Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

Such surveys would not be easy without the work of the elders, explains Yucuna. They are spiritually connected to the caimans and, through incantations, can ask them for permission so the team of monitoring staff and researchers can enter their territory safely. The humans promise not to disturb the caimans, and the caimans promise not to attack their visitors.

“The grandfathers always appear so they can do their job of monitoring and protecting the lake. They ensure that no harm is done to those they watch over, that nothing untoward happens to the other animals,” says Yucuna.

Community guardians saving the caiman

The black caiman is a large reptile that can reach 5-7 meters (16-23 feet) in length. It inhabits several countries in the Amazon Basin such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Colombia, where it has been reported in three departments — Amazonas, Putumayo and Vaupés. Caimans can be found inside lakes or in some black- and whitewater rivers, floodable forests or in shallow marginal ponds.

Caimans are generalist predators, meaning they eat any type of prey, ranging from very small animals to deer. This makes them a regulating species, contributing to the delicate balance of these ecosystems. Female caimans, depending on their age, lay between 20 and 40 eggs on the shores of lakes, where they take care of them for three months.

A black caiman approaching bait. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

“Between the 1970s and early 1980s in that area of Colombia [near the reserve], there was a huge problem with caiman hunting. They have always been highly sought after for their skin and meat, not just by local people but also by outsiders, non-Indigenous people or for foreign trade,” says Jack Hernández, a biologist and consultant for Conservation International.

Hernández, who is also responsible for leading biological surveys and developing environmental management plans with Indigenous reserves and rural villages in the lower Caquetá River, says the Indigenous communities were worried. For more than 50 years it had been common to constantly see hundreds of hunted caimans being brought down from the lakes to the urban center for export and sale.

Biologist Jack Hernández. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

“At this time [in 2008], the reserve began to look for a solution to the indiscriminate hunting and overexploitation and asked for support from Conservation International. That is when the community conservation watch program was born,” Hernández explains.

In 2014, with funding from Conservation International, a cabin was built at the entrance to the lakes, where monitoring and surveillance tasks could be carried out. Since then, families living on the reserve take turns staying there once a month in order to keep an eye out for hunters and get paid for their work.

The lookout cabin in Puerto Caimán. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

In January 2022, a knowledge exchange took place between Conservation International, the elders, the team of watchers and the co-researchers (the title given to collaborators who live in the Indigenous reserve) during a training session before carrying out the species survey.

“Our goal was to share knowledge, and they could tell us what they know about the caiman. They know a lot about the species, especially those who live in the reserve, because they have lived alongside them all their lives,” says Hernández.

In this first training meeting, the reserve’s team learned how caiman surveys are done from a scientific point of view and how sampling is carried out: how to count the number of caimans, how to measure them and why it was important to run surveys.

“But, in addition, we wanted to hear from them what they believed the aim of the survey to be because this project originated from the people living in the reserve.”

Co-researchers arriving at the Puerto Caimán lookout cabin. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

Albear Yucuna is one of the guardians at Puerto Caimán. His task, along with other colleagues, is to carry out protection, monitoring and surveillance patrols twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, to prevent outsiders from entering the area.

“We also conduct surveillance and protection work around the lakes of Puerto Caimán because there is a significant amount of aquatic fauna, especially umbrella species [those that require large habitats and ensure the ecosystem’s health and conservation]. This includes the silver arowana [Osteoglossum bicirrhosum], which years ago was being fished uncontrollably and was on the verge of extinction. This is a nursery site for the species,” the guardian says. “So far, our black caiman conservation work has yielded results and has been reflected in the abundance and growth of the population, which is why we continue with the same protection measures.”

Team of co-researchers during their checks in Puerto Caimán. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

Preparing for the survey

One of the highlights of the conservation strategy was the survey that ran Jan. 17-20, 2022. At night, aboard a small wooden paddle canoe, three researchers moved silently through the dark waters at just 5-10 kilometers (3-6 miles) per hour, steered by just one person at the back of the boat.

“In the center sits the person who is responsible for gathering the data and filling out the forms we designed to collect all the information on the caimans: who the observer is, the name of the river, the GPS coordinates, the date, the recorded species and the length of its head. In the bow of the boat is the observer, who basically illuminates the shores of the lake with a long-range flashlight. That’s where the caimans usually float at night,” explains Hernández.

Night monitoring on a raft on Puerto Caimán’s lakes. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

This exposure causes an ocular reflection in the caimans’ eyes, an intense reddish flash caused by the effects of the tapetum lucidum, the reflective layer at the back of the eye.

“This a good approach because when you shine a light on a caiman, you can detect it even at 200 meters [650 feet] or so away,” says Hernández. “We use body morphometric measurements, that is, using the length of our hands [from the raft, at a distance of about 1 foot] we measure the length of the head, from the tip of the nose to the center of the eyes.” With that information, they use mathematical equations to estimate the actual size of the head and the entire animal.

Illuminating caimans during monitoring on the lakes of Puerto Caimán. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

“This methodology has been used in a number of studies, which show that if you calculate the length of the head using morphometric equations, you can get an estimate of the length of the body.”

Contrary to what many might imagine, Hernández says that the larger caimans were actually very calm and allowed the researchers to approach them, and the smaller ones were happy to be picked up and measured.

Co-researchers taking a newborn caiman’s measurements. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

Future conservation

“Currently, the families that protect the caiman are also carrying out monitoring, surveillance and biological surveys on the trails they use periodically and are recording all the species of fauna that they see,” says Hernández.

As such, the project is intended to go beyond the black caiman. A little more than 2.5 kilometers (1.55 miles) from Puerto Caimán, the community guardians of Curare and Borikada are also working to protect several species, including the Arrau turtle (Podocnemis expansa) and the pirarucu fish (Arapaima gigas), both of which are native to the region.

“With the support of Conservation International, they are receiving training in participatory wildlife monitoring. This means that the entire community is trained, so that everyone has the necessary skills to conduct the monitoring,” explains Hernández.

A newborn caiman. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

Installing camera traps is one of the techniques used. These cameras help researchers understand the wildlife present in their territory and help them to better appreciate their conservation efforts. Their efforts are rewarded with a stable, well-populated fauna with rich diversity.

“They also receive financial recognition for the biological monitoring they do. They are carrying out work that benefits their territory,” says the biologist. “The cameras have not yet been placed near the Puerto Caimán area, but within the reserve. Since these animals have a very broad distribution, they are probably the same species found in the lake areas: large and medium-sized mammals and land birds. The cameras have recorded a diverse range of animals, such as jaguars, tapirs, bush pigs, anteaters, deer and a very rare species in the Amazon, the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis).”

A jaguar (Panthera onca) captured by one of the camera traps. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

However, the Río Puré Natural National Park, which is inhabited by Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation, is also next to the reserve. As such, it is a protected area where cameras should not be placed in case they affect the residents’ way of life, says Hernández, explaining the importance of protecting this region.

Map of the Curare-Los Ingleses Indigenous Reservation. Image courtesy of Jack Hernández.

Gonzalo Tanimuca is a co-researcher for the Curare community project and explains that, ultimately, the aim of the work is for new generations to learn about the black caiman and to raise awareness so they continue the conservation efforts.

The reserve hopes that soon, as research progresses, children will not only see the caiman in a book that is set to be distributed in schools — with illustrations by the reserve’s own people, alongside findings from the cultural research and survey — but will also have the opportunity to observe it in person. In fact, this is something local grandparents have asked for.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, according to our grandparents, the caiman was a sought-after animal for making shoes and bags. But our elders said this had to stop — our grandchildren have to get to know the animal and have to protect it. Our traditions led us to reduce this exploitation,” Tanimuca says. “Our traditions tell us, ‘Friends, this is our life, these are our beliefs, this is our future; we have to protect this animal.’ It is important because our children want to know the caiman. We now have a very important subject called environmental education, where we explain to them how it reproduced, how it was mistreated and how we are now protecting it.”

Illustration of a black caiman in the Curare-Los Ingleses Indigenous Reserve. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

Banner image: Banner image: A black caiman (Melanosuchus niger). Image by Jack Hernández.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Sep. 7, 2022.

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