By Dave Lutz | Wed. October 11, 2011

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Nigel Pitman, former research director of the Los Amigos conservation concession in Southeastern Peru, and currently a research associate at the Center for Tropical school of the Environment. The author of over 70 scientific publications and an established neotropical scientist, Nigel has lived within the rainforest for over a decade and frequently travels on rapid inventory assessments. In the fall of 2010, Nigel wrote Notes from the Field for the New York Times and has been vocal about the importance of research within the neotropics. Nigel discusses his personal experience in the Amazon.

[Q]: How long have you been working in the Amazon? Where have you worked? Could you tell us a little bit about these places? [NP]: I traveled to the Amazon after graduating from college and I’ve been working there ever since. My first Amazonian job was in eastern Ecuador, where I helped botanists at the national herbarium collect plant specimens along a highway that an oil company was building through Yasuní National Park. Among other things, this involved going out with the tree cutters and pulling specimens off the trees they cut down. I ended up doing most of the field work for my dissertation in Yasuní. After my thesis [at Duke University] I moved to Iquitos, in northern Peru, where some Ecuadorean and Peruvian colleagues and I set up a string of tree plots stretching 500 km across a big roadless area of the Amazon. After that I lived for five years at the Los Amigos Biological Station in Peru’s southern Amazon.

[Q]: When were you first interested in traveling to the Amazon? What interested you about the rainforest? [NP]: I knew that I wanted to be up to my eyes in tropical species and tropical conservation. There are plenty of good places to do that, and the one I happened to end up in was the Amazon. Before going to South America I’d worked for a couple of years in Costa Rica and Panama. The forests in Central America are great, but they’re also pretty small and fragmented. You can still find a few places where the forest stretches to the horizon, but even there it’s just a matter of time before you run into a cow. I wanted to go to a forest where I wouldn’t run into a cow.

[Q]: Describe your first experience visiting the Amazon. Where did you go? What was the trip for?  [NP]: My first experience was at the Jatun Sacha Biological Station, at the base of the Andes in eastern Ecuador. The station director had sent me there to re-survey some permanent tree plots he’d established several years before. I made a hash of the job, and to understand why you have to know a little about tree surveys. Part of the work involved measuring each tree for something called ‘diameter at breast height,’ which is how thick the trunk is at the height of your chest. I happily measured those diameters, but when I compared my data to the measurements collected several years earlier I was puzzled to discover that a lot of the trees had gotten smaller rather than bigger. We eventually worked out that the person who had originally measured the trees was short and I’m tall, so he was measuring the trunks lower down, where they’re thicker. This was an inauspicious start to several years of tree inventories in the Amazon.

Q]: The Amazon is not for the faint-hearted traveler. There are many features, the heat, biting insects, the humidity, that make most people uncomfortable. What made you want to return and eventually live in the rainforest? [NP]: Well, I’m happy to contest the notion that you have to be especially tough to work in the Amazon. There are 20 million people living in the Amazon right now. Plenty of babies, third-graders, and grandmothers…and no one I’ve ever met has been driven crazy by the weather or the biting insects. The parts of the Amazon I’ve lived in are very pleasant, and that’s a big reason why I’ve kept working there. When you ask residents of the Amazon what would make their lives better, no one mentions the bugs or the heat. They list the same stuff as everyone else: better schools, better hospitals, better jobs, better politicians. Also… have you seen the mosquitoes in New Hampshire?

[Q]: Living at Los Amigos, you have encountered many wild creatures. Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation involving wild life? [NP]: I can’t think of any. Even people who’ve spent their whole lives in the Amazon don’t have many stories about dangerous encounters with animals. I can tell you the craziest story I’ve heard, though. At the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in southern Peru a jaguar walked up to a student, lay down at her feet, and proceeded to writhe in ecstasy for about five minutes, the way a housecat will when it wants you to pet it. The student did not pet the jaguar, and eventually the jaguar got up and went away. No one entirely believed the student’s story until the station manager told us that the same thing had happened to another researcher years earlier. Getting back to your original question about dangerous experiences with wildlife, though, I’m now remembering the night my wife found a boa constrictor next to our daughter’s crib at Los Amigos. That was unsettling, but again…the number of stories I’ve heard of babies in the Amazon that get eaten by boa constrictors? Small.

[Q:] If you could pick out 3 experiences from your time in the field, could you share them with us? Maybe seeing a very rare mammal, flocks of macaws, or something like that? [NP]:Here’s something that happened this August during a survey of Peru’s northern Amazon led by the Field Museum’s rapid inventory team. I was walking along a trail with two other botanists: one in front of me and one behind. As botanists will, we were sort of shuffling along looking at plants. Suddenly, with no warning, the colleague in front shouted “Jaguar!,” sprinted around a bend in the trail, and vanished. I raised my eyebrows at the colleague in back and we were standing there wondering what would happen next when we heard a crunching sound and looked down to see a little river otter eating a fish in a creek a few steps away (a species of otter I’d never seen before). A few seconds later the colleague in front reappeared, startling a trumpeter that had been perched in a tree right above us and flapped off noisily.  It was a freakishly busy minute bookended by hours of uneventful plant collecting.