Cocha Cashu: Wild Nature

Manu monkey

Dozens of squirrel monkeys pass noisily through the trees in search of ripening figs and insects.

The Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru: A Naturalist’s Dream

I sit spellbound among trees that make up a forest abundant with all forms of life. Soon the animals move to me, passing over me like animate waves through the forest. A large group of white-lipped peccaries, relatives of our domestic pig, passes first. I’m enveloped in peccaries as they snort and root and clack their tusks together to express some difference of opinion between one another. The next wave is a group of brown capuchin monkeys, leaping from one palm frond to another, approaching curiously to evaluate what I might be.

Atop a majestic tree, an ornate hawk-eagle has built its nest.

Atop a majestic tree, an ornate hawk-eagle has built its nest.

Far above in the crown of an emergent giant tree, the shaggy head of a fledgling ornate hawk-eagle peers over the edge of its nest to see what the commotion is about. Its father is likely out searching for titi monkeys, which, once captured, will make a fine meal to promote the chick’s growth so it can soon hunt for itself. In the distance, the melodious duet of a pair of titi monkeys, expressing the strength of their lifelong bond, breaks the quiet of the forest. Butterflies of every color imaginable flit among the flowers in the dappled light of the forest floor.

Forests unbroken as far as the eye can see. Manu's 1.8 million hectares contains at least five uncontacted tribes living as they have for millennia.

Forests unbroken as far as the eye can see. Manu's 1.8 million hectares contains at least five uncontacted tribes living as they have for millennia.

Such are the scenes that play out in the deep forests of Manu National Park in southeastern Peru. This rhythm of life and death has repeated itself uninterrupted for eons. Manu has changed little in the last few thousands years since the rise of human civilization. This is one of the last places on Earth where nature reigns supreme.

View of Cocha Cashu, a small oxbow lake by the station. Piranhas here. Swim at your own risk! This also serves as the bathing facility.

View of Cocha Cashu, a small oxbow lake by the station. Piranhas here. Swim at your own risk! This also serves as the bathing facility.

I am here with two of my colleagues from the San Diego Zoo, Alan Lieberman and Russ Van Horn. We have the privilege to visit such a place at the invitation of Dr. John Terborgh, one of the world’s most distinguished tropical ecologists. Thirty-some years ago, John came to this remote corner of the Earth to begin work at a field station, Cocha Cashu, located on the shore of a small oxbow lake. In that time, John and his team have seen several hundred students and researchers come and go, and they have established a reputation for unsurpassed ecological research.

Disaster averted. One engine, done in by the hidden logs lurking just below the surface, had to be replaced in transit to Cocha Cashu. No coast guard here!

Disaster averted. One engine, done in by the hidden logs lurking just below the surface, had to be replaced in transit to Cocha Cashu. No coast guard here!

The unique selling point of Cocha Cashu is its pristine condition, affording an unrivaled opportunity to study the processes of nature undisturbed by human influence. For the Amazon, this is the “control group,” the place to come to study nature as it should be. It provides a baseline, a goal for us to strive for when attempting to recover other areas degraded by human activity. For me, it has always been the ultimate experience for wild nature. Seven years ago, I visited the wonders of Manu as a tourist—a privilege shared by only 2,000 to 3,000 people each year—but had not set foot in the forests of Cocha Cashu.

On this visit, I am immersed not just in nature but also in the research culture that has flourished here. We are working nearby in the cloud forests above Manu, studying the Andean bears (also called spectacled bears) and other inhabitants of the cloud forest (see post Bear Culture). Now, we are in the jaguar’s realm. We talk among ourselves about the exciting possibility of someday returning to Manu, not as visitors, but as researchers. What an incredible opportunity it would be to help fulfill the mission of this remote outpost of the Peruvian rain forest! It would be a dream come true.


Ron Swaisgood is director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

2 Responses to Cocha Cashu: Wild Nature

  1. Ron, what a beautiful experience you, Alan, and Russ are having! Your descriptions make me feel I am right there with you (of course, tinged with jealousy because I’m not!). I can see it would be any scientist’s dream, and hope you three may have that dream come true!
    Happy holidays to you all!

  2. Ron, what a wonder-full experience and a great way to end the year. You have had the privilege of visiting many parts of the world this year, but this sounds like an ecologist’s pinnacle and dream. Enjoy the whole experience. We appreciate you sharing your adventures and observations with us, especially since most of the readers will never be blessed to make such journeys. Perhaps our children or grandchildren will.

    I am particularly impressed that there are still uncontacted tribes in existance lending hope that “modern” civilization will not taint every inch of our planet. These uncontacted tribes live in harmony with nature as it was intended over the millenia, and they are able to survive. We need to be learning lessons from that harmonious existance, and not ruining their way of life to force nature to adapt our “modern” concept of how humans should exist. As you eloguently said, this pristine area is used as a base line on how things should be when returning to that state from what mankind has done to destroy it.