Forest journal: Twelve days in the jungle
Screaming monkeys, falling trees, chainsaw loggers, village chiefs and a nation's president are on the docket as Tribune chief business correspondent David Greising takes to the Amazonian rainforest.


Along the Essequibo River, Guyana. Day 1:

The first impression of the rain forest is the quiet. I always expected a constant chatter of monkeys accented by a sharp call of birds. But the Guyana rain forest alongside the Essequibo River--the country's largest--is strikingly quiet. It's quiet, that is, until the howler monkey shows up. (Photo: Sipaliwini River in Suriname, near the village of Kwamalasamutu.)

An apparatus in their throat serves as a boom box for howler monkeys who shout and bark, staking out territory and calling for potential mates, sometimes miles away.

Other surprises: The jungle floor is surprisingly open. A machete can help clear a trail but is not essential. Still, the vegetation is extremely disorienting. After a while, the 200-foot trees all start to look alike.

The British Broadcasting Corp. has set up a huge encampment here, and they're filming scientists from around the world doing field research. One woman spends all day atop a tree, observing monkeys. A rodent specialist catches bats in nets at night and dissects them by day. The bug man's arms are loaded with red welts--bites from the subjects of his study.

The BBC encampment has made almost no footprint on the jungle. The network's first one did, though. Workers slashed and burned several acres of old-growth rain forest, erecting luxurious thatched huts with a commanding view of the river.

We happened across the charred stumps and ghost-town camp during our first walk through the forest. Someone from the Beeb must have decided this forest carnage wouldn't be suitable as the backdrop for a nature series.


Along the Essequibo River. Day 2:

"Specimen collection" sounds almost antiseptic. But that's not the way it's done. Not in the Amazonian bush, anyway. Not around midnight.

When we jumped into a flat-bottom boat last night along with Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, specimen collection wasn't on the agenda. We were just planning to look. We had we set out in search of black caiman--the dreaded alligator-like reptiles that hunt anything in the water, including people. In Apoteri, a nearby village, a caiman snatched a child from the water a few weeks ago.

Using flashlights, we spotted the eyes of several caiman, shining like blood-red reflectors on the river's still surface.

When Mittermeier flashed his light into the trees along the riverbank--and the eyes of a snake shone back--the outing changed from idle to action-packed. Mittermeier had a backpack on, and in the field, a backpack can serve as a container for a reptile specimen. But first, Mittermeier would need to "collect" it.

Mittermeier directed Vidas, our Amerindian guide, toward the snake's red eyes. Just as the boat jutted beneath the overhanging branches, Mittermeier snatched the snake's tail.

He pulled gently at first. Then he put muscle into it. Soon he yanked so hard that seed pods from the tree flew into the boat and water.

Man overpowered snake, and the head popped out of the branches. With Mittermeier holding the tail at arm's length, the snake arched and jolted like a downed power line. It wanted a piece of him but couldn't quite circle back for a bite.

Mittermeier's colleague, Dick Rice, must have seen this sort of thing before. He sat in the bow of the boat, the snake's long fangs darting within inches of his face. But a jump into the river offered no escape. There were caiman nearby.


Apoteri village, Guyana. Day 3:

A few rusted skeletons of old processing equipment are all that remain from the days when a balata factory made Apoteri a commercial center. Villagers would fan out into the forest, gashing the balata trees with their machetes, catching its rubbery sap in their buckets.