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The shouting began at 3:30 a.m., in the depth of a warm Amazon night. Above the susurrus of the river, the hiss of sediment against the boat's wooden hull, came a strident voice. Unintelligible clamor. Either somebody had stubbed his toe on the way to pee over the railing, or we were in trouble.
Russell Mittermeier, president of Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International and an eminent authority on primates, was asleep in his hammock on the lower deck. Marc van Roosmalen, a Dutch primate ecologist who has lived for 10 years in the central Amazon, was bunked down there also. Two other passengers and I had slung our hammocks upstairs behind the wheelhouse and were placidly tucked away like a trio of dozing sloths. To my right was the ecologist Gustavo da Fonseca, a vice president of Conservation International and a leading conservation biologist here in Brazil. To my left was SI's own Heinz Kluetmeier, one of the world's loudest-snoring photographers. Our boat, an old wooden river cruiser named the São Benedito, as tall and narrow as a double-decker bus, was laboring upstream on the Rio Madeira, a huge tributary that drains the southwestern corner of the Amazon basin. The Madeira along this stretch, roughly 200 miles from its junction with the main-stem Amazon, is a quarter-mile wide, chocolaty brown, powerful and swirly, and infested with black caimans—large and ferocious crocodilians known occasionally to gobble a human. In the comfort of darkness, though, the river seemed to rock our boat as gently as a cradle.
We had set out on this expedition several days earlier in search of an extraordinary new species of monkey, and having found that sucker, we were exultant. At sunset the previous evening, sitting on the wheel-house roof, we had celebrated with cold Antarctica beer while enjoying an unspeakably lovely Amazon vista. The western sky was lit an orangish rose, a single dugout canoe was silhouetted in black on the broad slick of river, and cumulus clouds towered distantly over the forest like piles of ricotta. Then a big gibbous moon appeared overhead, and we lay gawking up at it through binoculars. Our overnight cruise was taking us upstream toward the town of Manicoré, where we would base ourselves for a little further reconnaissance of the local primates, but the real work had already been done. We had taken photos and made notebook observations of the new species, more than enough for the three scientists to document its existence. Nothing could destroy our good spirits now unless, ha-ha, the boat sank. Finally we had dropped into our hammocks and slept, while the São Benedito continued chugging against the current.
I'd been warned about these old, top-heavy riverboats. Lacking stability and often overloaded, they sometimes tip, swamp and sink. But so far ours had performed well—aside from a few troubling moments in mid-evening, when the engine had gone silent and we had drifted helplessly downstream while the captain and his assistant repaired the bilge pump. If we were swept broadside against a sandbar, I figured we would probably capsize. But the boatmen seemed unconcerned. Got any rubber bands? they asked us. Got any duct tape? Kluetmeier gave them a roll of gaffer's tape, and the repair was done. Our engine kicked back on. Everything O.K. now? we inquired. Yes, yes, no problem. Then throughout most of the night the old diesel maintained its steady low beat, like an interminable elephant fart, nicely conducive to slumber.
I slept well but somewhat vigilantly. Taking a hint from the bilge-pump episode, I sealed my notebook and passport in a zip-lock bag and left it in a day pack within grabbing distance. To fuss over the notebook, I realized, was probably unnecessary: If the boat sank and the caimans didn't eat us, no doubt I'd be able to write from memory. But taking the precaution made me feel cozy and conscientious.
And now, suddenly, this wee-hours commotion. The strident voice belonged to our captain, hollering what sounded at first like the river's name: "Ma-deira! Ma-deira!" That was close but not right. Later I would realize that, in his panicky slur, he was yelling, "Meu Deus! Meu Deus!" Then he added, "Vamos para o fundo!"
The boat was wallowing. It had settled so low that there was now only an inch or two of freeboard below the gunwales. Downstairs, not far from where water was inviting itself onto the lower deck, Mittermeier remained calm. Van Roosmalen remained calm. These guys are case-hardened tropical field biologists with many years of experience, many miles of iffy river journeys and expeditionary discomfort behind them. They know the whole gamut of gruesome thrills to be faced here in the planet's greatest jungle. They know the poisonous snakes, the bird-eating spiders, the biting flies and flesh-boring worms, the parasitic catfish, the tree-toppling rainstorms, the way a small scratch left to fester can become a suppurating sore. Mittermeier even knows how it feels to have a boat sink beneath him on one of the Amazon's huge tributaries. Back in 1973, during his second major expedition, he lost a motorized canoe in the heavy chop of the Rio Negro and had to swim for his life. His camera, his binoculars and all his other gear disappeared in the black water—all except his lucky green plastic toothbrush cup, a ludicrous but much-treasured talisman that he'd carried everywhere since his college days. There he had sat, on the bank of the Negro, wearing only a ripped swimsuit and holding that plastic cup, while his partner said, "Well, thank god we're still alive," and Mittermeier thought, Damn, all my equipment is fish furniture. But the experience didn't dampen him, except physically. Amazon fieldwork forces a certain spirit of hardy imperturbability on its veteran practitioners. That spirit was about to be tested again.
Upstairs, I remained calm for a different reason: I don't speak Portuguese. I wasn't aware that "Vamos para o fundo!" means "We're going to the bottom!"
It took a series of happy accidents, and a couple of unbrilliant acts of impulse, to get us this deep into Amazon soup. The story began back in April, when a strange newcomer arrived at the Van Roosmalen household in the Brazilian city of Manaus, the gateway to the Amazon. The newcomer, though as tiny as a mouse, was a baby monkey—but not precisely like any monkey that Van Roosmalen had ever seen.
Knowing that Van Roosmalen and his wife, Betty, maintain a rearing facility for orphaned primates, a certain caboclo (a backwoodsman of mixed white and Indian blood) offered them the animal for adoption. It had been captured somewhere up in the Rio Madeira drainage, the caboclo said, and brought down aboard the ferry from Manicoré, 300 miles to the south. What kind of monkey was it? Evidently a pygmy marmoset, judging from the size. There was only one species of pygmy marmoset known to science: Cebuella pygmaea, the most diminutive of all South American primates. Although its geographical distribution is strictly bounded—the pygmy marmoset inhabits a vast area stretching west from the Madeira but has never been recorded on the river's east bank—it's fairly abundant within its native range, especially along riverbanks and the edges of settlement clearings. It doesn't seem to suffer badly from human hunting, because it's too small to be worth killing for food. It belongs to the family of callitrichids, which also encompasses the larger marmosets and the tamarins.