Merlin Tuttle's Most Dangerous Adventures in the Venezuelan Jungle

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Merlin Tuttle

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Dr. Merlin Tuttle is an ecologist, wildlife photographer, and conservationist who has studied bats and championed their preservation for over 60 years. He's the founder of Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, home to his legacy and devoted to research, education and the conservation of bats. www.merlintuttle.org

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So the village that we were staying with, the guys informed me that now way up the river, 30 miles or so, there was an area that I would love to have collected in, but I couldn't because it was controlled by a group of Yanomamo that had shot at everybody who had ever gotten near there and shot arrows. So I was afraid to go up there to do any collecting. But then our group of Yanomamo informed me that these guys had gone off on a raid to attack another group and probably wouldn't be back for a couple months. So I got brave and went up into their area where I didn't think they were going to be with a young man in Venezuelan who worked for me. And we had just parked our dugout canoe on the bank and had gone out into the woods to set nets for bats. And we hear 100 or so, maybe not 100, but a goodly number of Yanomamo men coming down the trail. And we immediately thought, oh my God, we're going to be absolutely dead ducks if they find us. But I did know that they don't usually go after their quarry. They usually wait in ambush. So we hid out in the jungle until about 2 o'clock in the morning and then tried turning our lights really dim and sneaking along without making any noise to get back to our canoe and hoping they were asleep. And we'll never know whether they were asleep or not because we did get shoved off and got away. But the very next night, we were stupid enough to think we had gone far enough away that they wouldn't find us. And we went back and tried to net again. And then we heard jaguar noises. And I had a Yanomamo and a Mica-Ditari Indian working for me. And they immediately started warning me, that's not El Tigre. That's the Indians that we're trying to avoid. And... He's making jaguar noises. Right. And they communicate among themselves. Oh, wow. But I insisted, I thought that these guys were just trying to get out of work because I'd been working them pretty hard and that they wanted to go to bed early that night. So I didn't really take them very seriously. And I went off with my shotgun. Back then we were collecting everything from jaguars to mice. And so in those days, it was a big macho thing to shoot a jaguar. So I go off with my shotgun to hunt the jaguar. And it kept moving too fast without noise in between. And I finally dawned on me that, hey, this is more like Indians than jaguars to me even. I went back and my guys were just ready to actually abandon me and leave me. They were so scared. Oh, no. We didn't even take the nets down. We got out of there as fast as we could. Went back to camp. And the next day when we came back to get our nets, all the main strands of the nets had been stolen, proving that these were Indians that were after us. And we probably just got out in time. So that's the most danger you've ever been in. I don't know. I mean, there was the time I was crawling into a cave and on my belly in a narrow passage and all of a sudden found that there was a big cobra coming out. And I had to lay perfectly still so that the cobra didn't get upset while he was going by. So you had to lay perfectly still while the cobra slithered by you? Yeah. Whoa. And there was the time the river bandits came after us. River bandits? Where was that? That was in Venezuela in the Costa Carre Canal. We're getting into stories that probably ought to be told another time when we're not distracting from bats. But... No, they're fun. We can go back to bats. To put a long story shorter, the Costa Carre Canal is the world's longest natural canal. Out in the middle of it, there are just no humans around. And we were camped out there collecting for the Smithsonian. But I carried a lot of small cash to do business when I did come to where there were villages. The small cash was hidden in false bottoms of trunks. The way I got the cash, we were funded through a military grant. And anybody who knows anything about the military knows they've got every restriction under the sun on their money and accounting for it. I had known that their rules weren't going to work very well for collecting. And so I had gotten bids from plane charter companies to fly us out to this remote savanna. And they were going to charge a lot of money because it was risky to the planes. And so I got the military to send the money to the Bank of America in Caracas. And then this was time when we had machine guns at the door of every bank. And I mean, it was a dangerous time in Venezuela, period. Well, we pretended to change Christmas gifts. And that's how we got our money into small change and took it back to our hotel. Then we put it in false bottoms of trunks. Then we go out to the frontier. And after a while, the word kind of gets around that these guys can always pay for something. They must have some secret supply of money. So one day we're out at this remote camp and my Venezuelan helpers, Indians, came running up saying, oh, you know, in Spanish, Quidado, the vandals, not vandals, but the robbers are coming. And they were coming up the river in a little motorized dugout. And so that's how my guys heard them in time to know that they were coming. And then they saw them and realized who they were. And so I had just a couple of minutes. It's kind of interesting because I was reared to be a conscientious objector and didn't believe in fighting in war. And so here we are with the bandits coming armed with shot. It was kind of interesting. They had old muzzleloader guns that they actually used rocks in black powder still to shoot. But here they're coming and I'm responsible for eight or ten people, their lives, and am I going to be a conscientious objector or what am I going to do? And so I broke out all the guns we had, gave everybody one of the, you know, everything from an M1 rifle to a couple of double-barreled shotguns, pistols, and got everybody positioned behind rocks and logs. And then as the bandits approached, I yelled down to them in Spanish that we understood who they were and if they touched that rock, we're going to kill them. And they kept coming. And so I finally had everybody show themselves in their guns and yelled one more time. And the last time I yelled, they were within a meter of hitting the bank. And at that point, we would have had to kill them. But they finally, at the last minute when they saw they were outgunned and then we had the upper hand, they backed up and went off. That ought to be hair raising. It was. But I learned a lot about my conscientious objector ideas. You were ready to abandon it. Well I mean, what are you going to do? You going to let good people die just because you don't believe in firing a gun at a human? Yeah, that's a good point, right? Yeah. Very important lesson to learn, right? Yeah, it was an important one for me. Boy, you've had some pretty amazing experiences just studying bats around the world. It's been a wildlife I bet, huh? Well I've never chosen to get myself into big adventures. But the adventures chose you. One of my all time favorite things to do is to go places where almost nobody's ever been. Like when I went out to see the Shamatari Indians, I had to hike 46 miles across country from the last Yantamama village to get out there and see them. And I just went out there, I mean I knew it was dangerous. How dangerous I didn't know, but I just was driven by curiosity. Here's a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a group of people that have only seen two other outsiders in their whole existence. And it was just so much fun going out there and seeing, experiencing that kind of thing. But I certainly got into the high adventure while I was out there. Yeah, that sounds amazing. So you had to hike, how long did it take you to hike 46 miles to get to them? Well we did it in a day and a half. I had a 40 some pound pack. We went extra fast because I did not know when we started on the trip that the reason See these two Shamatari came out to visit our Yantamama group because they were looking for allies in a battle. They're expecting to be raided by another tribe. And I didn't know this is why they were there. But when I asked through my interpreters, and let me point this out too, when you watch a movie and they're speaking Pigeon English, there's no such thing as a place where people are really aboriginal and you're speaking Pigeon English to them. Everything I said on that whole trip out there had to be translated by me from English to Spanish and then from Spanish to Micritari, from Micritari to Yantamama and from Yantamama to Shamatari. You can imagine there are a few miscommunications. What year was this? This was happening? This was 1967. Okay, so clearly there's no cell phones, no other ways of communicating. Wow. So we did not know that these guys were expecting an attack until we had already left with them to go out to their village. And what we eventually found was that the reason they welcomed us so strongly was that they thought we'd bring our bang sticks with us, needing guns, and be good in the battle. Oh boy. And so by the time we got there, well, we found out that we had to camp out along the trail the first night and we found out that they were expecting an attack. My two guys, I had to have a Yantamama and a Micritari for the translations to go. And incidentally, they knew enough that they wouldn't go. I had a terrible time getting them to go. When I finally convinced them, I had to pay them a month's wages for every day they went out there with me. So that first night, we set up camp by a beautiful stream in the jungle and then my guys got really suspicious when our two Shamritari hosts went off by themselves quite a ways away in a hidden place in the jungle to put up little shelters for their night. And so they got suspicious, went and checked and found that they were worried about being attacked and they were leaving us out on the trail to be the bait. But the next day, we arrived out there and my Micritari guide had experienced, he had been in a Yantamama village during an attack once. And so since we knew they were thinking of being attacked any time, he instructed me what to do if we were attacked. And he said, you know, right off, play dead. We were thinking that the attack might come at night and sure enough, the very first night we're there. I mean, talk about scary experiences. Long before we thought we were being attacked, there were people that had malaria and there were guys getting really high on drugs to chase the Hakura, the devils out. And they were going around the... Chase the devils out? Right. What do you mean? They believed that everything was attributable to spirits. And malaria? Yeah. There were good spirits and bad spirits. They hadn't evolved to think of one god and one devil. There were just a lot of spirits with good ones and bad ones. And they were trying to chase the bad ones out of the village by getting high on dope and then shooting those kureri-tipped arrows at the hallucinated images. So what drugs are they getting high on? Ebon. It's a powder that they... I'm trying to think what... They make it from a vine, I believe. And what is this psychedelic substance in this drug? They blow it up their noses. Oh, okay. It's a smuff. If you go to my website, there's a place on the website where you can... I'm trying to remember, we can tell you later exactly how to get to it. But I've got a place on my website where you can actually see that trip me out there with... I had a movie camera with me. You can see them blowing the dope up their nose. And I've got it on film right up until the guy tried to attack and kill me.