Tribal warriors catch giant snakes for science

Discovered by the outside world just 60 years ago, the Waorani Indians have led a remote, isolated existence deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon for generations. But with oil companies looming ever larger on the horizon, a shadow is being cast over their humble way of life. But now the tribe has a champion in the form of researcher Renata Leite Pitman. Pitman reveals to BBC Earth how an unlikely, yet fruitful, partnership between scientists and Waorani Indians, is leading to exciting discoveries that may ultimately help conserve their ancestral home

Living in one of the most challenging wild places on Earth means the Waorani have had to forge a unique relationship with the wildlife here. Their respect for the forest has led them to understand the importance of looking after its long-term welfare. Their tread lightly policy includes hunting only what they need, to ensure that their impact is sustainable.

Central to the Waorani’s beliefs are many ancient and spiritual traditions, one of which involves the capture, and release, of a world heavyweight snake – the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). For the Waorani, the ultimate test of manhood involves tracking and capturing this revered, titanic reptile using nothing more than their bare hands. They believe that, on capture, the snake’s strength is passed to them so they too are able to defend their territory with the power of an anaconda.

Defending their domain would historically have meant battles between other neighbouring and rival communities. However, with oil companies drilling sometimes just a day or two's travel away from their settlements, the current threat to their very existence is far more daunting.

Since the 1960s, 15% of Ecuador’s tropical forest has disappeared as a result of oil exploration and other exploitative industries. With two thirds of the Waorani’s ancestral forests already lost, the tribe is determined to fight for what remains – and the anaconda has thereby found an unlikely ally. The anaconda’s role comes as a result of the Waorani joining forces with renowned scientist Renata Leite Pitman, a wildlife vet and research associate with the Center for Tropical Conservation.

Confined to a nocturnal existence, and with most of its life spent in or around water, the secretive green anaconda is little known to the scientific community. However, as an apex predator of the Amazon, it acts like the proverbial "canary in the coalmine". Pollutants running into the water accumulate in potentially high concentrations in these giants at the top of the food chain. Close monitoring of the anacondas should provide invaluable evidence as to exactly what is happening in these rivers.

Pitman herself has worked extensively alongside many indigenous tribal groups throughout South America for the past 25 years, and credits their insight and dedication as one of the reasons why the data collection for her research has become so effective.

“One of my Yine (a Peruvian tribal group) assistants is about half my size, and yet has managed to catch six green anacondas all by himself in a single day,” Pitman says.

“They also deploy the transmitters themselves and are even able to send me data over Skype conversations.”

Once an anaconda is caught, the team takes samples to test for a variety of contaminants before then inserting a transmitter to monitor the snake’s movements. Now the mother of two daughters aged 11 and 13, Pitman is no longer able to base herself at the research centre in the jungle, and so must rely even more heavily on her tribal co-workers to deliver results. In addition to drawing maps of the lakes frequented by the tagged snakes, 21st Century technology is also at the heart of this operation.

“They also deploy the transmitters themselves and are even able to send me data over Skype conversations,” adds Pitman.

This hard-won research has already begun to reveal exciting results. For example, until recently virtually nothing was known about the dispersal of juvenile snakes. The team have already discovered that, after initially exercising a level of wanderlust, the young anacondas ultimately decide there’s no place like home.

In addition to both understanding more about the snake’s ecology and the levels of pollution to which the forest is being subjected, it seems the data collected could also be employed to empower the Waorani. Little over 60 years ago this tribal group remained uncontacted by the outside world. Now it is proving almost impossible to keep the world at bay.

“When the generator is on, all the youngsters are constantly on Facebook, showing them all the trappings of the modern world which they will never have. But by demonstrating how fun and interesting it is to study animals which live alongside, we can try and draw their attention towards the unique things they do have,” Pitman explains.

It certainly sounds like a smart way forward, and with pioneers like Pitman championing all that the Waorani stand for, collaborations between scientists and indigenous tribal people will continue to reveal many more secrets from the depths of the Amazon.

Discover more about the Waorani Indians, and other tribal groups from around the globe, with Tribes, Predators & Me presented by wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan. UK viewers can watch on BBC Two, Sundays at 21:00 GMT or catch up on BBC iPlayer.

The series will broadcast in other countries at a later date.

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