Encounters with Jungle Elders


Adela Indriago

Conservation Fellow

With a degree in biology and a nature lover, I have had the opportunity to work in different ecosystems, developing in areas from research (doing bird banding and using camera traps to identify jaguars, working with moths and other insects and teaching zoology...) to adventure and nature tourism. Since I studied at the university I dedicated myself to inform and educate, through my tourist guides and social networks, on conservation and research issues.

Learn more about Adela Indriago

July 14, 2021

Encounters with Jungle Elders


I used to climb between the buttress roots of an old tree in a park that my parents often took me to as a child. I imagined that I was in a lost world, full of magical creatures like fairies and great giants that mimicked plants. I never thought that these games my imagination would come true and take me to my favorite place on Earth, the Amazon rainforest.

Those who have entered the rainforest have surely experienced the sensation of feeling so tiny amidst so much immensity, like a bee in a village of giants. I discovered that my world of fairytales exists, that the forest is full of lifeforms that are connected to each other, from the roots of a huge ficus tree that travel hundreds of meters through the ground, the wind that carries pollen and seeds for thousands of kilometers, the songs of the manakin birds that announce courtship, the howler monkeys claiming their territory, the frogs in thunderous concerts after the rains and thousands of interactions that make this place a magical and unique ecosystem.

Canopy: The elders of the jungle can be seen standing out from the horizontal line of the canopy. These trees are much taller than the rest.

During my walks in the Peruvian Amazon, in Madre de Dios, I enjoy every encounter with the elders dressed in vigorous green leaves that capture the first rays of sunlight that touch the canopy. These elders have many names depending on who meets them; this time we will call them the Brazil nut tree, kapok tree and the Shihuahuaco tree.

Some of these trees, as useful as they are for humans, have earned a bad name among local people. The first time I saw a Brazil nut tree, a villager told me that it was a silent killer. The comment surprised me, but then he showed me a fruit and pointed out that they fall from more than 30 meters up at the time of harvest. I quickly understood what he was referring to. The Brazil nut tree can produce more than 150 Brazil nuts per season. The ball-shaped fruit can weigh up to 2 kilograms with 16 and 24 seeds inside. When the fruits are ready, they fall from the top of the tree and become a projectile that can hit the head of someone unaware. 

Brazil nut. The fruit is a big brown ball that looks like a coconut.

On another occasion, while we were visiting new land that was for sale, we had to change our route because the local guide said that there was a red kapok tree (lupuna colorada, Cavanillesia umbellata) and we could not walk along the base of the tree because it was haunted terrain. The Indigenous people assure that this tree is used for witchcraft. Some people harvest the sap to make spells, others the leaves; more remark that if they use the area around the tree as a bathroom, they would disappear, and so on. Every story gets creepier.

 Lupuna colorada: Cavanillesia umbellata

The kapok tree is one of my favorite trees. It is imposing, with tall roots that extend several meters from the base. The trunk has a curious bottle shape with a characteristic belly. It is commonly used for timber and the tree’s crown is frequently used by great eagles and macaws to make their nests. Thousands of birds and animals use the Kapok`s structure as shelter.

Lupuna tree near to chuncho (Ceiba pentandra): these trees can reach 60 meters high and  have characteristic tubular roots that start several meters off the ground. Individuals up to 500 years old have been discovered.

Before visiting the Peruvian Amazon for the very first time, I did not pay much attention to the trees. I felt more inspired by the world closer to the ground; frogs and snakes in particular captivated me. However, the first time I focused on a Shihuahuaco tree, I found the tree hosted a huge harpy eagle nest with a 1 year old chick.

Harpy Eagle`s Chick on a nest in a shihuahuaco tree.

Shihuahuaco trees are being destroyed by illegal logging at an alarming rate. These trees are slow-growing and to reach 50 meters in height, they must live at least 600 years. But they are felled and dismembered in just a few hours.

Kapok tree and I. Here is a comparison of how small (and happy) I feel next to this magnificent old man of the forest.

I fall in love with the forest every time I visit it. I would like this magical world to be conserved, but my desire is increasingly unattainable. The rainforest loses numerous hectares every day to illegal gold mining, illegal logging, commercial agriculture, and so on.

I invite you to fall in love with the rainforest and help us to conserve it.


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