Meet ‘DEET’ The Anaconda killer
The lure of seeing the anaconda in its natural habitat is bringing thousands of British backpackers to a small corner of the Amazon that has become one of the continent’s biggest eco-tourism destinations.
By Michael Howie, La Paz
But for the anacondas that live in the swamps surrounding the Yacuma River in northern Bolivia, this invasion of gap year travellers and other hardy tourists is proving disastrous.
Biologists say the entire population of anacondas in one of the jewels of the Amazon basin will be wiped out within three years because of the deadly effect on the snakes of the insect repellant used by most backpackers to help protect against malaria.
The number of tourists going on tours of the pampas that snake there way through jungle and grasslands 250 miles north of La Paz has exploded from a few hundred to nearly 12,000 a year in the past decade.
Travellers are enticed by the promise of getting up close and personal with the world’s largest snake – sometimes picking them up and hlding them – as well as swimming with river dolphins, catching pirhanas, and spotting monkeys, sloths and an array of other flora and fauna.
But sightings of the snake are becoming increasingly elusive and as many as 30 of the awe-inspiring creatures, which can measure up to 30ft in length and are known to strangle and devour prey as diverse as caiman crocodiles and cows, are being found dead every year, according to local guides.
Roberto Justiniano, a tour guide and biologist working closely with other scientists to assess the impact of the unrestrained tourism boom, revealed that the growing quantity of toxins being washed into the waterways from travellers is proving too much for the anacondas.
“The high-strength insect repellant that tourists use to protect themselves from mosquitos is absolutely fatal to the anacondas.
“They are amphibians and breath through their skin. The insect repellant, along with some types of sun cream, is extremely toxic. It is getting washed into the pampas and left in the swamps where tourists are hunting for the snakes.
“We are finding between 25 and 30 dead anacondas which have been poisoned. It is terrible.”
Amphibians, such as snakes and frogs, are highly susceptible to the chemicals contained in many types of insect repellant, in particular those that contain DEET. This is partly because they breathe and absorb water through their skin, providing an easier way for contaminants to enter the animal’s body. Environmentalists recommend using safer insect repellants based on natural oils, but many tourists complains these are less effective.
Zoologists estimate that only around 200 anacondas remain in the Yacuma River swamps, a sharp fall from the population of nearly 1,000 a few years ago.
“A few years years ago you had a 90 per cent chance of seeing anacondas – maybe three or four together. Now you are very lucky if you see one.”
He added: “A study has been carried out by other biologists which shows the ecosystem will collapse in three years if things continue as they are.”
The fear is that insects, fish and smaller amphibians would be wiped out within the river basin, resulting in the collapse of the entire food chain.
Mr Justiniano, who has guided tours of the pampas for four years, blames uncaring tour agencies and the carefree attitude of travellers who come to experience this once untouched natural wilderness.
“People come to be entertained by the natural world, to touch and play with the animals. This is wrong, we have to have more respect,” he said.
He is now striving to set up an association of tour agencies to protect the wildlife. A proposed code of conduct would encourage tourists to use only eco-friendly insect repellant and set a cap on visitor numbers.
“During the 1990s only a few hundred people came here. Now we have had 35,000 in total over the last three years, many of them from Britain. The tourism at this moment is completely unsustainable for this beautiful environment,” he said.
Anacondas, which are native only to the Amazon basin, are already in increasing danger from loss of habitat due to deforestation.
Mr Justiniano says the snakes continue to thrive in more remote parts of Amazonian Bolivia where tourism has not yet penetrated, but fears that could change as the growing number of travellers encourages tour operators to sell packages further afield.
His fears about anacondas and the rest of the wildlife in the pampas are backed by Conservation International Bolivia, which says tourism is having a “major negative effect” on the ecosystem which the snakes rely on.
Candido Pastor Saavedra, the body’s director of programmes, told The Sunday Telegraph that while the invasion of tourists provided an economic boon to relatively poor communities, the anacondas were paying heavily. Water used for washing and showers was returned to the waterways, he said, carrying insect repellant and other chemicals with it.
“In the pampas of the Yacuma, the quantity of tourists has increased so much that there is a negative effect. This is a result of practices such as the manipulation of animals like the anacondas, discharging service water into the river or dumping waste.
“These bad practices must be corrected or we will end up killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said.
Most backpackers are oblivious to the devastating impact their presence is having for the anacondas.
Roberta Spence, 23, from London, who quit her accounting job to go travelling, was among a group of English backpackers about to go looking for the snake.
“I didn’t know they were getting harder to find,” she said, as she prepared to head out with her guide. “I really want to touch one. It’s very exciting. It’s a shame if they are dying out. No-one at the agency told us about this.”
Nicola Smith, 22, from Bristol, added: “They advertise the trips as a chance to find anacondas, which was the main reason I wanted to come. But I haven’t met anyone who’s actually found one yet. It’s sad to think they are suffering because of us.
“But I’m not sure I would stop using insect repellant. I don’t want to get malaria.”
- Wildlife of Bolivia’s Yacuma Pampas (matadornetwork.com)
- Diver braves the waters to swim with deadly 26-foot anaconda (mytechnologyworld9.blogspot.com)
- Green anacondas enthral croc bank visitors (thehindu.com)
- Community and Conservation in Bolivia’s Yacuma Pampas (theecologist.org)
- Ben’s Insect & Tick Repellent (100 Max formula) Review (pushingmiles.wordpress.com)