This Park in Peru Is Nature ‘in Its Full Glory’—With Hunters


Source: National Geographic

Manú National Park is a biological wonder, protected—for now—by isolation and the indigenous people deep in its rain forest.

Elias Machipango Shuverireni picks up his long, palm-wood bow and his arrows tipped with sharpened bamboo. We’re going monkey hunting in Peru’s Manú National Park—a huge swath of protected rain forest and one of the most biodiverse parks in the world.

The hunt is legal. Elias belongs to an indigenous group called the Matsigenka, of whom fewer than a thousand live in the park, mostly along the banks of the Manú River and its tributaries. All the park’s indigenous inhabitants—so-called uncontacted tribes as well as the Matsigenka—have the right to harvest plants and animals for their own use, but they can’t sell park resources without special permission, and they can’t hunt with guns. Elias and his wife—people in Manú go by first names—grow yucca, cotton, and other crops in a small clearing on the Yomibato River. Their children gather fruit and medicinal plants. Elias catches fish and fells trees. And he hunts, especially spider monkeys and woolly monkeys—favorite foods of the Matsigenka. Both are threatened species.

Things have been this way for a long time, but the Matsigenka are growing in number, which worries some biologists who love the park. What if their population doubles? What if they start using guns? Could the monkey populations survive? And without those species, which disperse the seeds of fruit trees as they snack through the jungle, how would the forest change?

As the forest outside the park becomes increasingly fragmented by natural gas extraction, mining, and logging, protection of the park becomes more crucial. So does this question: Are the people who live inside it good for it or bad? And is the park good for them?

Elias, 53, has curly black hair and an intense gaze. He’s wearing a green soccer jersey, shorts, and sandals made from old tires. His home is a clearing with several open, palm-thatched buildings. As we cross his fields and plunge into the jungle on a muggy day last November, we’re accompanied by his son-in-law Martin, his daughter Thalia, and a teenage granddaughter. Like Elias, Martin is armed with a bow and arrows. Thalia wears a handwoven sling to carry back plants. I’ve got Glenn Shepard, an anthropologist who has spent 30 years working and living among the Matsigenka and is one of the few outsiders fully fluent in their language.


Caption: Clay cliffs just outside Manú National Park form a natural salt lick that attracts various animals, including these red-and-green macaws. More than a thousand species of birds—10 percent of the world total—live in and around the park. 

Five minutes into the jungle we hear the calls of dusky titi monkeys. The hunters don’t break stride; titi monkeys are target practice for teenagers. Another five minutes and we hear a troop of capuchin monkeys. Elias pauses, even raises his bow, but lets them go. He’s holding out for something more poshini—that is, delicious. We begin a tour of fruit trees and soon find several with recently dropped fruit. Monkeys have been here, but they’re gone. Another hour goes by. At last Thalia’s face lights up. Osheto, she says in a whisper—spider monkeys.

Now we see them, leaping at high speed through the crowded treetops, 60 to 100 feet above our heads. The hunt is on—and I, for one, am stumbling over roots, crashing through vines, slipping in mud, and running into thorns and spiderwebs while watching for snakes. Elias and his family are more graceful, but this jungle is difficult even for them. Hunting animals on the ground—fat peccaries, say—is tough enough. To bag a spider monkey, a Matsigenka hunter first has to catch up with it, then shoot more than six stories straight up at an erratically moving target.

He has several natural medicines to improve his chances. A day or so before a hunt he’ll often drink ayahuasca, a potent, psychoactive mix that makes him vomit. It’s supposed to purge him of harmful spiritual influences and put him in contact with the spirits that control his quarry. To sharpen his aim, he may squeeze a plant’s juice into his eyes. During the hunt itself, he may chew some sedges, or piri-piri, that harbor a psychoactive, mind-focusing fungus. Shepard, who has tried them, calls them jungle Ritalin.

But none of these performance enhancers guarantee success. We follow Thalia’s signals as the dark, long-limbed shapes flit away far above us. Elias bounds ahead, catches up with a female, takes aim, and looses an arrow. He misses. The monkeys bolt. There’s no chance for a second shot. If he’d had a shotgun, the monkey would have been dead.

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