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Bird watchers on recent expedition in Peru run afoul of native Agua Runa Indians

Bird watching may seem like a safe activity - and most of the time it is - but traveling the world in search of rare species can, on occasion, place unsuspecting birders in the midst of cultural conflict.

Old Dominion's own well-known bird watcher, Bob Ake, had such an experience last month in Peru. Ake, a recently retired professor of chemistry and biochemistry, had signed on with a tour company to visit northern Peru from Sept. 7-30, where the goal was to see the Orange-throated Tanager, a bird Ake said had been discovered only 25 or 30 years ago.

"South America is the land of the tanager - there must be 50 or 60 species - and this was one of the few places in the world where you could see this particular bird."

It was only one week into the trip, after the 14-member group endured a gruelling 12-hour van ride over bad roads to reach a campsite destination near the Marañón River, where the tanager first was discovered, that they spotted the unique bird with their binoculars the following morning.

While they were feeling good about their find as they returned to camp for breakfast, they were a little concerned about a rumor they'd heard about a group of native Agua Runa Indians who wanted to talk to them.

"The story was that our Agua Runa guide the tour company had hired hadn't passed along part of his money to the rest of the Agua Runa community, and they were a little miffed about it. They wanted us to turn him over to them, although we were not sure what the purpose of that was.

"We heard there were a hundred people coming up from this southern Agua Runa community to confront us. When Manuel heard this, he took off for the north, allegedly to get help from a Peruvian military station eight to 10 kilometers away. We thought maybe he was just getting the hell out of Dodge."

Shortly thereafter, a different group of Agua Runas, from the north, paid a visit to the campsite.

"They told us that they didn't want us to go on their community territory. We had been warned about this and there was a very definite line we were not allowed to cross, which we understood and honored.

"Our leaders, who spoke good Spanish, finally convinced them that we hadn't crossed that line, but then they said, 'Well, you've been looking onto our land and taking pictures, and for that privilege we want 10 million soles,' which is the equivalent of about $3 million."

That demand led nowhere, Ake said.

Eventually, a group from the south arrived - not the hundred that been rumored - but a contingent of about 25, a number of whom had painted faces. "I wouldn't describe it necessarily as war paint - and these aren't people one could call primitive, they wore T-shirts and jeans - but I think it was designed to intimidate," Ake said.

Yelling and screaming between the Agua Runa communities ensued, which the tour group later learned arose from the fact that the two factions didn't agree on a common boundary between them.

After about three hours, the community from the north demanded that the birders leave, which they did. In the process of breaking camp, Ake discovered that his rolling duffel had been stolen. It contained his expensive backup pair of binoculars, along with some camping equipment, whose value he estimated at $1,700.

That, however, wasn't the end of their confrontations.

"We had barely started on the road south when we were forced to stop by felled trees, freshly cut by machetes, and boulders. After clearing the path and driving farther down the road, we soon came upon a group of southern Agua Runas physically blocking our way.

"About this time a military policeman came up behind us with Manuel. The young Peruvian officer was very sharp, and presented the point of view that their actions weren't good for Peru, that this was an internal matter and that they shouldn't involve our group in their problems.

"He wanted to avoid any protest through the ambassadorial level and ultimately make sure that Peru didn't get on the U.S. State Department's list of bad places to go. Peru depends a lot on tourist dollars at destinations such as Machu Picchu and other places."

Finally, after getting past more blocked roads and arguing with an officer at a military police checkpoint, the group arrived at a "half-star" motel and returned to the town of Bagua Grande, where their venture had begun.

"It cost us another day of birding, but no physical harm befell anybody," Ake said. "The group from the north came and went three times, each time with more people, and the rumor of 100 people from the south was pretty daunting, but I don't recall any physical threats."

But one never knows when a situation might turn violent. Last March, when Ake led a small group to Assam, a state in eastern India, they were birding one day in the border state of Meghalaya just 20 miles away from where 15 people from a sub-tribe were stopped by guerrillas and shot to death.

"I don't know if they would have harmed us," Ake said. "I'm always somewhat careful. I still won't go to Colombia, and in fact for a long time when the Shining Path was in Peru, Peru was off limits. But that's a thing of the past. What we experienced in Peru was tribal, not guerrilla, warfare.

"Our group leaders in Peru thought we had permission to be where we were and that everything was on the up-and-up, and perhaps if this guy, Manuel, had shared a little bit of the wealth, there might not have been an incident."

The excursion was memorable on a number of fronts. Ake said he added 140 new bird sightings to his growing list of 3,000 (there are nearly 10,000 species of birds worldwide). His next venture will be to lead a group of six bird watchers to Burma and Thailand in March, where, among others, they will be in search of the White-browed Nuthatch, an endangered species found only on Burma's Mount Victoria.

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