Imagine this. It’s night and you’re alone in the rainforest. You’re walking along a narrow trail, a machete in one hand, a torch in the other. You see an oddly shaped branch on the ground and you reach out with the machete to give it a tap. A loud, menacing hiss fills the air. You look up, and a reptilian eye reflects the beam of your torch. You realise you are standing metres from the head of a black caiman, the largest predator in the Amazon. Those metres are entirely occupied by its jagged tail and tabletop back.
This is what happened last year to Orlando Zegarra, a Peruvian tropical ecology student at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, in Manu National Park, Peru. I know, because I was there. After Orlando reported his adventure to us, eyes wide with excitement, I was one of a small crowd who returned with him to see the caiman for myself. I remember speed walking along that trail, half worried the caiman would have gone by the time I got there, equally fearful that I might bump into it. When I finally did see it, I gasped. Holy s**t.
One thing is seeing a black caiman from the safety of a boat. Another altogether is sharing a trail with a mature adult. In the dark.
It was heart-stoppingly big. But even more impressive than its bulk was its implacable stare, that penetrating, venomous hiss emanating from its body, its utter immobility. I had the impression of tension ratcheted to snapping point, of matchless power tightly reined.
Sure enough, when somebody stumbled too close, the caiman exploded into movement, swinging its forequarters round to face us. But the trail was too narrow. Or its body too wide.
We all took photos, from a respectful distance now, and the next morning I went back with two colleagues and a tape measure. We worked out the approximate length of the caiman: at least five metres. And just under a metre in width. It truly was a beast.
A young black caiman, on the other hand, like almost all animal babies (except some human ones), is endearing rather than awe inspiring. While adult caiman eyes make my spirit quail, those of a baby are lovely: huge and hooded like a raptor’s, gold-flecked, luminous. When viewed head-on, its mouth reminds me of a duck-billed platypus. And a youngster displays a touching bravado, a misplaced faith in its ability to instil fear.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I set off in a small canoe to photograph baby caiman (caimen?). I had found a nursery the previous day and my friend, Dano Grayson, wanted to capture them with an underwater camera.
As we paddled away from the dock, my eye was caught by something flapping in the water. It was a large moth, weighed down by its heavy cloak of wings. I backtracked quickly to rescue it. “Don’t do anything stupid,” I warned, as I deposited it on the bottom of the boat. It dragged itself over the warm wood at my feet and came to rest in the shade under my seat.
We continued towards the nursery and soon spotted several little caiman sheltering at its edge. They held their ground as we inched forward and I held my breath as Dano lowered the 16 kg camera and plastic housing into the water. But each time their nerve broke just before we got close enough for the wide angle. They would swim a short distance and then stop. One made a small sound, a choked swallow, in its throat. I caught myself glancing at the nearby vegetation: would Mum surge forth in aid of her young? It didn’t seem likely, in broad daylight, but one could never be too sure.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small movement. When I looked more closely, I realised my moth had done exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t: it had launched itself from our canoe… and landed back in the water. Dano, in response to my cry of dismay, said “We’ll have to be quick if we want to rescue it.”
Too late – we both saw a small caiman start forward. I watched in fascination as it stopped briefly, then surfed towards the moth. It came to a halt just centimetres from the insect.
Seconds passed. Nothing, nobody moved.
Wings struggled to break free from the water’s skin... and, with a primal snap, the moth was engulfed by the caiman’s jaws. One gulp, and that was that.
I was torn with pity for the moth, and delight in having witnessed, for the first time ever, a black caiman feeding.
Thank goodness it was only a baby.