Latin America is probably the largest storehouse of Nature’s best kept secrets in the world. Its remote and inaccessible patches, especially in and around the Amazon basin alone, is home to 20% of the entire world’s wilderness. Its biodiversity is uniquely different from other parts of the world. People go in search of El Dorado – the city of gold, even though it’s existence has been completely discarded. However we continue to ignore the very El Dorado of natural heritage that exists right in the heart of Latin America.
While Amazon is the main home to numerous exclusive species, I chose to venture into a slightly different location called Los Llanos (spell it as Los Yanos – meaning Plains in Spanish). These are the vast plains with which the Amazon rainforest merges. A vast swathe of Savannah which houses all the unique species of the thick rainforest but open enough to offer the best opportunity to spot and photograph them. This landscape is covered with thick canopies at one end and vast grasslands on the other, being aptly connected by dense and thorny undergrowths. The terrain is better known as the Orinoco basin and is exclusively shared between Colombia and Venezuela. However I chose Colombia over Venezuela because of the huge political, economic and social turmoil prevailing in Venezuela in the present days.
If I discard the mythical stories of Titanoboa, the largest snake that has ever crawled on the face of the earth is found here and my tailor made expedition was aimed at finding them in their natural habitat, photograph them and above all to know and break the myths that has been injected inside us by the TRP seeking Hollywood and Tollywood movies.
Since ages, GIANT ANACONDAS (or GREEN ANACONDAS) have created a terror amongst travelers and researchers. This unnecessary demonization can be accredited to thriller movies and some over exaggerated narrations from erstwhile travelers. The huge size and incredibly powerful chunk of muscles helped fabrication of such stories. It was widely spread through such stories that Anacondas regardlessly eat humans. My way of understanding nature, denied to accept this fact. There is one TRUTH that exists in nature. An animal gets aggressive against humans only and only under two basic reasons - either they consider you as food or as threat. True to my appreciations, I found Anacondas to be the most docile, harmless and wise reptile I have ever encountered. I have seen and studied 11 Anacondas in the wild and each one of them proved me right. There are stories of 40 meter long Anacondas. Neither such large sizes are biologically possible nor does any concrete evidence of such giants exist. The largest size ever recorded was 10 meters long. The largest size that I witnessed was about 25 feet (7.5 meters) long and 1 foot thick in diameter. Isn’t that an incredible size, good enough to fascinate us and leave us awestruck? Then why do we need to unnecessarily demonize one of the greatest creations of nature, just to sell our stories?
Anacondas, by virtue of their calm and composed nature, took no time to earn my respect. They know that they have no business with humans. We are neither their food nor their threat. They try to avoid us and at times shy away to evade unnecessary disturbances. They have got bigger challenges in life. Their huge size, in spite of being their greatest asset, is their greatest drawback too. These serpents are extremely fast in the waters but are equally slow on land. I visited the Llanos in peak summers. At this point the waterholes dry up, leaving the snakes strangle in the middle of a barren land. It is the best time to spot them. But it is also the most difficult times in their lives when they try to migrate to the next nearest waterhole. They often breathe their last while attempting to do so. Finding food is not an easy job for the Anacondas. They stealthily strike their prey with a mere success rate of 10%. However the bigger problem comes while digesting them. The serpents lie in open and remain practically immobile for weeks. It is at this point they are more vulnerable to the scavengers and predators.
However when an Anaconda is at its best, it is the Apex Predator of the Amazonias. It leaves none. Jaguars, Caimans, Crocodiles, Giant Otters are of no match to the muscle power equivalent to an Elephant standing on your chest (Anaconda’s crushing power is 90 pounds per square inch). There are disputes about the largest snake that exists on earth. Some are of the opinion that Reticulated Pythons are longer. While there are few instances where Reticulated Pythons have merely able to match the size of an Anaconda, they were never found to grow longer. Moreover comparing Anacondas with Reticulated Pythons is like comparing Elephants with Giraffes. It’s not only the length, but the bulk which matters too. Unlike pythons, the Anacondas grow throughout their lives. The giant Anacondas that people have recorded so far are all females. The males hardly grow up to 3-4 meters and are more slim, agile and aggressive. The gracious females grow up to 8-9 meters and are responsible for all the fascinating stories.
I had one special encounter with this gentle giant which I will not be able to forget in my lifetime and that was with the largest one. While the 25 feet long Anaconda which I documented on land remains to be the largest in my life, there was another larger one…
It was inside the water and was coiling around a dead tree. I was standing on the same tree above the water surface along with my camera gear. The snake was popping out its head once in a while and was checking me. The size of the head helped me appreciate that it is no less than 8 meters long. But it never came out of the water and hence I never got a chance to measure it. It was fun to play ‘hide and seek’ with one of the most infamous snakes in the world, just like your closest childhood friend. It was popping up its head and was probably trying to tell me “Here I am – click me if you can” and thereafter disappearing in just seconds. Next it was again appearing in the most unpredictable place at the most unpredictable time. After getting fed up with my bulky camera gear to photograph her, I brought out my GoPro attached with a dome port and submerged it inside the water. And to my surprise, my friend came up straight to the dome port, hugged it tight and started checking it. These are the moments that I actually live for. While playing with the Anaconda, one of the branches of the dead tree gave way and I slipped into the water. The gentle giant, just like a true pal, slithered away from my side but never intended to harm me.
The search of the Giant Green Anacondas, confronted me with some of the utmost beauties and natural wonders of the world which only the Latin American continent can boast of. There is something fresh in the air and water of this untouched part of the world which nurtures some of the giant species on earth. The GIANT OTTERS are to be mentioned first. Surprisingly they are considered to be one of the prime predators of Amazon. They grow up to 6 feet long and are the largest otter species on earth. While hunting in packs, they can easily beat back or even kill Caimans or small crocodiles. CAPYBARAS are the largest rodent species on earth and are found only in this part of the world. They can grow up to 5 feet in length and 2 feet in height. Unfortunately they form the best delicacies for Anacondas. The GIANT ANTEATERS are the largest of their kind. It was a treat to witness and photograph one of them carrying its baby on its back. What a tender moment it was! I particularly loved photographing the CAIMANS as they were everywhere and offered me with diverse perspectives in variety of light conditions. In fact it was a great natural history moment to photograph TURTLES climbing on top of Caimans and using them as watch towers. But my adrenaline struck a different string, when I found myself in front of an ORINOCO CROCODILE. I was literally unable to believe this. Orinoco Crocodile is one of the most Critically Endangered Crocodiles with few hundreds left in the wild. It is also the largest Crocodilian species of South America. Sighting mammals and reptiles in broad daylight in a forest is always special and Los Llanos offered me with ample of such opportunities. IGUANAS, SOUTHERN TAMANDUA ANTEATERS, AGOUTIS, HOWLER MONKEYS and finally a TAYRA are some of the rare spectacles that I was fortunate to witness and photograph. I will do injustice to my narration if I don’t mention the JAGUAR that I saw while tracking Anacondas. But the interaction was so fast and brief that I was unable to photograph it in any way.
Colombia boasts of being the leading birding destination of the world and it is no exaggeration. The amazing birdlife, especially near Lake Lagunazo (Trinidad), the largest lake in the department of Casanare, left me awestruck. While I have photographed numerous bird species, there are few which deserve special mention. It was the first time that I photographed HUMMINGBIRDS and that too without a proper setup of strobes. They are the fastest birds I have ever frozen. It was the most challenging, demanding yet satisfying experience ever. Photographing HOATZINS was quite an experience. These are the oldest living bird species on earth and are considered to be the direct descendents of Archaeopteryx of the Jurassic age. Amongst all the colorful birds the SCARLET MACAWS took my breath away. As if nature has painted it with all HER mind and colors. TOUCANS are no less in the competition. They are as graceful and beautiful as their Asian brethrens. HORNED SCREAMERS and CRESTLESS CURASSOWS are unique, rare and short-flight birds that crossed my path graciously during my Anaconda search. JABIRU STORKS, JACAMARS, ORINOCO GEESE, SCARLET IBISES, FORKTAIL FLYCATCHERS, YELLOW RUMPED CACIQUES and CARACARAS are some of the other extra ordinary birds that I was able to photograph.
The fish-life in the Orinoco basin is absolutely astounding. PIRANHAS - the most infamous fresh water fish, is found over here in abundance. They hunt in schools and thousands of razor sharp teeth work in unison to rip apart flesh and bones from any living being that enters the water. However there is one tiny myth attached with this fact. If your skin is intact, the Piranhas aren’t going to bother you. But with a tiny bit of cut mark, the Piranhas will take no time to convert you into a pile of bones. But amongst the fishes, it’s not the Piranhas that cause terror in this region. It’s the ELECTRIC EEL. A full grown Electric Eel can emit up to 600 volts – something good enough to kill a full grown healthy human being. They spread small packets of lower voltages to immobilize their prey swimming around and finally consume them. Photographing Electric Eels is nearly impossible as there is always a possibility of the electric shock being conducted to the photographer through the water body. But I saw one Eel gasping aside a nearly dried up waterhole and was able to photograph it. I did not push it inside the water because of two reasons. Firstly I was all wet and was having every possibility of getting electrocuted even if I do it with a wet stick (Maybe I could have searched for a dry stick which I did not do for the second reason). Secondly it’s not good to manipulate nature. A death in the wild means good to many other – that is how the circle of life works.
Searching and photographing a snake which is faster, stronger and heavier than me is one of the biggest dreams I have ever conceived since my childhood. But this time it did not come easily. The expedition took extensive research and planning of one long year. In fact I had to curtail my other domestic expeditions for this entire year. I hardly found anybody who has made any similar venture and hence had to take over the role of Robinson Crusoe. Learning about a species, which still continues to remain under the mythical cloud was not easy. The toughest part was learning a very different language which got me going in the land of the unknown. Nothing works other than Spanish in Colombia. However the rewards of all the efforts were more than deserved. The joy of sitting by the largest snake on earth is no less than an achievement to me and hence was unable to stop myself from getting into the purest of the emotions.
HASTA LA VISTA
EL CAMINO ES EL DESTINO