By the end of 2005 Manuel and I had realized our first small export from Peru, which was, for us at least, a momentous accomplishment and the result of over three years of hard work to get to that point. It was enjoyable work and afforded us the opportunity to indulge our passion and travel frequently throughout Peru, most often to Tarapoto and surrounding regions in search of frogs and adventure. Also active in the area studying poison frogs were two young students from East Carolina University, Jason Brown and Evan Twomey. By this time they had a few really cool discoveries under their belts including both the “Lowland” and “Varadero” forms of Ranitomeya fantastica, both great finds which Manuel and I were certainly envious of. Prior to the end of 2005 we had only minimal contact with either of these two. Manuel and I were of the mindset to just focus on our own thing, and since Evan was working for INIBICO at the time on their frog export project it didn’t seem like there would be much potential for collaboration. Evan, however, must have seen things differently. In Late November 2005 he emailed suggesting that Manuel and I join him on a trip to a pretty remote village called Shucushyacu located in the lowlands of the lower reaches of the Huallaga River. The reason Evan was keen on going to this town was that he believed there was the potential to find a species that Rainer Schulte had been referring to as “Dendrobates riverinus”. If I remember correctly what Evan told me about this “species” was that someone brought Rainer a pretty dried up specimen of a frog, supposedly dendrobatid-like from a log raft floating down the Huallaga, presumably in the neighbourhood of Shucushyacu. That was all that was known about the frog, which as it were, was plenty to convince the three of us that this was a frog worth looking for, even though we really had no idea what the hell we were really looking for.
We flew into to Tarapoto from Iquitos on a night flight. Evan was waiting for us with Caesar at the airport in Tarapoto; from there took off immediately over the Escallera Mountains hoping to get to Pongo De Caynarachi not too far past midnight so that we could have a few hours of sleep before the next day. As my wife can tell you, I can be a little bit awkward when meeting someone for the first time; I am usually pretty quiet and reserved, and so making small talk with an unknown entity is difficult to the point of being painful at times. Evan might be better able to say how awkward the first bit of the car ride was, but before long Manuel and I both realised that it appeared that Evan was someone we could get along with. Whatever uncertainties there might have been melted away, as Evan showed us a great roadside pool that was a breeding pool for the large red eyed Phyllomedusa camba. How many times we had driven past this pool without ever thinking of looking for tree frogs over it at night, it is tough to say, but we were sure excided that Evan showed us one. The rest of the drive over the mountains was filled with enthusiastic conversation about frogs, which as it turned out, was but one of several interests the three of us had in common.
We arrived in Pongo sometime in the middle of the night. It was at this time that construction was beginning on the mega project that was to pave the Tarapoto to Yurimaguas road. Today, with the paving long since completed the drive from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas can be done, assuming that no stops are taken, in a little under three hours. In 2005, the drive could take as long as 18 hours or more depending on the road conditions. Due to the commencement of construction, road crews were occupying what few rooms were available at the time in Pongo. We were lucky enough to get one room, which the three of us crammed into, and Caesar slept in his car.
We left early the following day to head towards Barranquita and the twin Towns of Pelejo and Papa Playa which were located on the Huallaga River. On the way we stopped at a slightly elevated forest area that Evan had identified while perusing Google Earth. We got out and soon worked our way down to a humid stream valley. The forest here was lush, and we soon heard and found imitator, which were fairly typical of what you would expect to find in the lowland forests between Pongo and Yurimaguas. We also found a few Ameerega pongoensis, which were quite exciting to us since for Manuel and I our encounters with them up to that point were few and far between; but in this forest they seemed quite abundant. Soon after that we spotted something creeping up a stilt palm. Awesomely it was a reticulated R. fantastica! This was up to that point the nicest frog I had ever seen or found. This particular one was a tightly reticulated specimen, and outstandingly beautiful. High fives and bad words were in order to properly celebrate this find in a way befitting the manly frog men we were. The trip was off to a great start, and this as it turns out was to be the first of many times where Evan’s uncanny ways with Google Earth would yield some wonderful fruits.
With the excitement still pulsing through us we sat on the banks of the Huallaga and ate a hearty field lunch of canned tuna and crackers. Sometime after noon we were able to get a ride on a small craft ferrying cattle, chickens and a few campesinos and now a few gringos upriver. It was about three hours to Shucushyacu they said. Fair enough, joined by Caesar, the four of us climbed aboard and negotiated seating amongst the cattle. Seating was at a minimum and unfortunately we were never quite far enough for comfort out of range of the spray zone of the cattle as they emptied themselves of one form of excrement or another in repetitive blasts assailing the floor of a boat. Awesome, these were good times!
As is usual, there was discrepancy in the “said” time and the actual time, but we made it to Shucush in the early evening, unscathed and “non shit-stained”. The “hotel” was quite a scene, and there were rats scurrying around the room and we heard scampering about the rafters. But at $3 a night who were we to complain? What about the nightlife we wondered? It was at this point we learned what else we had in common with Evan, a zestful enthusiasm for drinking warm beer in out of the way places.
We survived the night, and awoke far too excited to be hungover. As usual we found a local guy to guide us for the day. There are frequently, gun and machete traps on trip wire in the forest surrounding many remote towns. In most cases the locals know who is placing these traps and where, and thus our practice of getting a guide ensured that we most likely would not get lost, nor shot. After hiking through pastures and chacras for about a half hour we finally entered into some forest, and in doing so attracted the attention of a billion or so mosquitos. The mosquitos were bad here, worse than I had previously experience anywhere else in Peru. However they were a mere minor nuisance to three men with a singular focus on finding for the first time alive the enigmatic and quite possibly mythical Dendrobates riverinus! Cryptozoology at its finest! As we proceeded along the trail, discussing what we though this frog might look like, Manuel, who was in the lead shouted “FANTASTICA!” This cry in the forest brought Evan and I racing to his side. There, creeping along a log just down the slope upon which the trail was carved was what we believed to be a fantastica with the most amazing scarlet red crown and electric blue reticulum covering the dorsum and limbs. I was almost too stunned to move, and the thought of these two getting away before we could at the very least photograph them was terrifying. In a frantic blur we wrangled both of them into a bottle and as we assembled ourselves tightly huddled back up upon the trail, and hoisted the bottle triumphantly into the dappled light that penetrated the canopy above – the three of us began to squeal and a giggle and hug and high five like a group of preteen girls sighting some over rated, over produced prefabricated heartthrob. It was a sight for the forest to behold, and I am sure madre selva was plenty embarrassed for us. The only anchor mooring us to our escaping masculinity was a constant chain of expletives connecting the oohs, the ahhs and the “oh my gods”. The frogs were unbelievable and yeah, we were excited!
We searched for more the rest of the morning, until we could no longer stand the mosquitos. I no longer recall what we did that afternoon or evening, (though I am sure we drank more warm beer) but I do know we were out early the next morning searching for more. In the end, Evan located one more male carrying two tadpoles. That was the last of these frogs that either of us would find for the next seven trips combined (which happened in short order) back to Shucush; it turns out these frogs were incredibly illusive.
What happened next still bothers me to this day. We, in our excitement, made a big deal about these frogs on forums and online. It was not long after that the black market for this frog was in full swing; long before we could make them available legally as captive bred animals, they were available in Europe and elsewhere from smuggled stock. For a long time after, when we showed up to Shuchush we would be offered a plastic bottle of half dead or dead frogs by some local looking to sell them. It’s a tough moral dilemma to completely appreciate perhaps for some who have never experienced this. Blame can certainly not be placed on poor farmers who lived largely hand to mouth and were merely looking for a way to augment their living by possibly selling a few frogs to a few gringos. We felt terrible. The reality is that when pictures of new frogs show up on the internet, it often creates a demand, and if there is no imminent release of legally available animals in the near future, in many cases these frogs make it to the market illegally. It is for this reason we keep quiet when we find something excitingly new, having learned our lesson the hard way with the initial discovery of the standard benedicta. We campaigned Jason Brown and Evan Twomey and the other authors of the 2011 Ranitomeya Monograph to exclude photo’s of the yellow benedicta for fear that these too would be smuggled. Even without locality data, anyone with even a basic knowledge of the biogeography of these frogs could triangulate fairly easily where these frogs could occur. Hopefully these frogs don’t suffer the same fate as their redheaded brethren now that so much has been posted about them online.
To end this on a positive note, I can say that is seems as least with Peruvian frogs, and I think it’s the case with dart frogs in general, smuggling is far less of a problem today than it was several years ago. I think it is due in large part to the increased and consistent availability of captive bred frogs all over the world. While hobbyists in general can’t halt habitat destruction or can’t stop timber or oil palm concessions from erasing the habitats of these frogs, by insisting on only legally sourced captive bred animals we can at least work toward eliminating the demand for smuggled animals, and I think overall we are getting somewhere in that regard.
To be continued with the search for the “Blue Butt” benedicta and the completely anti climatic discovery of the “Yellow Head” benedicta.