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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

Tadpoles, Tantrums, and Trash

I’m sitting on a concrete walkway which spans the Lurin River, in Pachacamac, Lima, Peru. Our house is just five minutes’ walk – or a brief debate about the relative strengths and weaknesses of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk – from here.

Few people would think this a pretty river. It has been bulldozed and channelled into submission, though the winter rains can still rouse it to a semblance of its former glory. Its banks have been tampered with, its sand and gravel and pebble substrate extracted for construction. People wash their cars and clothes in its pools. The river bed is littered with plastic and chunks of Styrofoam and a busy road runs nearby, the hum of its traffic a constant refrain in the background.

The Lurin River downstream.

The Lurin River upstream

But the day is bright (though it does not seem so in these photos), the sky is a patchy pale, watercolour blue, a cool breeze sighs in a nearby stand of fichus trees and the occasional dragon, damsel or butter flies past me (ha!). I can hear the calls of at least five different species of birds; what they are I can’t say (must bring our bird book next time).

We’ve come to catch fish. Although it’s the dry season and the river has been reduced to a mere trickle, on one side of the walkway is a large pool. And this pool is inhabited by at least three species of small fish. The last time we came here we caught several sardinas and a suche – an eel-like catfish – but the tilapia has thus far eluded us. My 12-year old daughter, Saba, is determined to capture it, so she can put it in our pond, together with its cousins, and with the toad tadpoles we rescued previously from drying puddles.

I suspect the wily tilapia has been the target of many a fishing expedition. And indeed, after half an hour has passed, Saba gives up on it and focuses her attention on a couple of suches she’s spotted. Meanwhile, my 10-year old son, Luca, is bent on rescuing yet more tadpoles. I realise I didn’t bring my camera or the little net or a bin bag to collect some of the trash, so I slip back home.

When I return, Saba is in tears: Luca threw a stone into her end of the pool just as two suches were approaching the worm-baited hook. I think she’s also disgruntled because Luca has caught LOTS of tadpoles while she has nothing to show for her efforts. After calming the waters, I persuade Luca to help me pick up some of the plastic and Styrofoam, while Saba perseveres. Within five minutes our bin bag and arms are full and I’m about to call out that it’s time to go home, when Saba interrupts me with a triumphant yell.

She’s caught a suche, not with the hook but with the net. And it’s a beauty, the largest I’ve seen (we’re talking 12 cm here), with tiny dark spots all over its back. Luca is suitably impressed and Saba glows with pride. We collect all our gear and… discover that the tadpoles are dying. There’s too many of them and the water has warmed too much. It’s an emergency situation.

We abandon the trash – resolving to pick it up later – and rush home as fast as we can. The tadpoles are a black mass in the bottom of the container, not a wriggle in sight. I unlock the back door and field the dogs, drop everything except the container, and speed walk to our ‘pond’. When I open the box, the tadpoles flow out with the water, and drift limply to the bottom. We watch them anxiously.

Seconds pass. One squirms briefly. And another. Then three jiggle to the surface. We sigh with relief. They’re going to be fine.

We release the suche into its new home – I’m sure it zig zags faster than any superhero - and I remember the trash; Saba and I go back for it while Luca cleans the fishing gear. Our paltry collection effort represents just a fraction of what lies scattered along the length of the Lurin River and I try not to think of the stuff that will accumulate over the coming months, upstream and downstream, only for it all to be flushed out to sea when the first floods come.

But at least we can try to keep ‘our’ section of the river trash-free.

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