Pisatahua: a wildlife lover’s dream

By Shalynn Pack

The author in paradise, in a Pisatahua cabin

By trade, I am a wildlife conservation scientist – I study species of birds, mammals, and amphibians to understand how we can ensure their survival into the future in this human-dominated world.

By soul, I am a spiritual seeker – I search for ways we can deepen our connection to the planet, to the Divine, and to our communities. The union of these two sides of myself have brought me to Pisatahua Plant Medicine Retreat.

My husband and I first met Erik and Sasha 7 years ago in Cochabamba, Bolivia when we volunteered within their organization Sustainable Bolivia. It’s been incredible to see what they’ve accomplished in those short years – moving to the Bolivian Amazon, creating the non-profit Fundación Amazonia, creating a community-based nature reserve 3x the size of Manhattan (Area Protegida Lago Aquicuana), and founding Pisatahua Plant Medicine Retreat. We stayed at Pisatahua with Erik and Sasha for 2 weeks, with my goal being to document all the wildlife species in the Reserve, and photograph the elusive jaguar using motion-sensor camera traps (for the jaguar story, see my other blog “Searching for Jaguars in Aquicuana Reserve & Pisatahua”).

Pisatahua is located within the northeastern Bolivian Amazon in the department of Beni. It’s a wildly diverse region within the tropical lowland rainforest ecosystem. The deep and sinuous Beni River and its countless oxbow lakes and wetlands are home to over 900 species of fish, dozens of which provide sustenance to local indigenous and campesino (rural) communities.

Pisatahua caretaker, Choco, shows his morning’s catch for his family, of paiche (Arapaima arapaima), pacu (Colossoma macropomum), surubi pintado (Pseudoplatystoma spp.), piraña, and carancho. Photo by Adam Spencer.

The region’s dense tropical forests are incredibly rich in wildlife. They’re home to over 250 species of birds – to provide context, the entire United States only has about 450 species!

A Striated heron hunts for fish at sunrise on Aquicuana Lake. The peculiar cry of the Black caracara (right) rings across Pisatahua each evening.


I’m an avid birder, and I was in heaven! In just 12 days I spotted 55 species of birds (see the species list at the end of the blog for details). Over the lake, Black-collared hawks fly away with their catch of fresh fish, Large-billed terns swoop and dive, Snail kites search for prey in the reeds, and Striated herons and Hoatzins rest in the overhanging branches.

Black-collared hawks (left) nest in the largest lakeside trees on the lake. Large-billed terns (right) are acrobatic flyers, and are one of the most common birds on the lake.


In the forest, long-tailed hermit hummingbirds buzz above the red Heliconia flowers, while White throated toucans, Black caracaras, and Roadside hawks stare down curiously from the forest canopy. On a camera trap, I caught a photo of the rare Razor-billed curassow, a heavily hunted bird whose presence implies that this area is pristine.

The Razor-billed curassow (left) lays just 2 eggs per year, making the species slower to recover from conservation threats. Roadside hawks (right) are excellent predators, their sharp eyes catching movements of lizards, fish, and small birds.


From my cabin’s hammock, I could watch chestnut-fronted macaws fly loudly overhead, greater anis hop around and bicker with each other, and crimson-crested woodpeckers forage in a tree hollow.

Chestnut-fronted macaws (left) are incredibly social birds, usually mating for life, and can live up to 80 years! Crimson-crested woodpeckers (right) have thick skulls that allow them to peck through trees without brain damage.


A juvenile greater ani explores the lakeside forests, just after being preened by his mother.

Black-capped squirrel monkeys visited the lodge daily, the three-toed sloth hung lazily nearby, and the jet-engine howls of the Red howler monkey boomed over the sunrise harmony of bird song. We were lucky to spot the weasel-like Tayra climb down from a giant strangler fig tree – surprised by our presence, he bounded down a nearby vine just 2 meters from us. While hiking on Pisatahua’s trails, I spotted tracks of the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, the scurrying agouti, the lumbering black caiman, and…the JAGUAR!

Agoutis (left) have a powerful bite that can pierce through the Brazil nut shell. A jaguar track – likely a female – graces the tropical mud near Pisatahua.


Each of these wildlife encounters brought me so much joy, in knowing that their current existence here is thanks to the sustainable living of the local communities and the care and forethought of Erik, Sasha, and all the contributors to Pisatahua and Aquicuana Reserve. Because, just an hour’s drive away lies the largest city in the Bolivian Amazon: Riberalta, a growing city of 150,000 people and the world’s capital of the Brazil nut trade (here, they call them Amazon nut, a more fitting name). Yes, 64% of the world’s Brazil nuts are harvested from wild trees and processed in the Riberalta region…so the next time you crunch a Brazil nut, give thanks to the Bolivian Amazon! With this growing local economy, improved road access, and a local birth rate of over 6 children per woman, this city is indeed growing. In the last 10 years, 400,000 hectares of Bolivia’s Amazon forest – an area the size of Rhode Island) – has been converted to pastureland. Brazil’s forests just to the east are also suffering from heavy logging and human development.

This map shows northern Bolivia and the Bolivian Amazon, with red showing forest that was deforested between 2000-2016. The arrow points to Riberalta, and the circle shows the approximate location of Pisatahua. Data from Hansen et al. 2018.

As local demands on the forests and lands increase, the Aquicuana Reserve and Pisatahua will become evermore important to conserve, providing a home for vulnerable species such as the jaguar. By visiting Pisatahua, you are directly protecting these forests and creating a sustainable future for local communities – and this is not a hyperbole! Pisatahua provides vital funds for the Reserve and was integral to its founding. Within the local communities of Warnes and San Jose, Pisatahua has founded ongoing projects for reforestation, clean drinking water, local artisans, and community ecotourism.

Doña Karin prepares her harvest of rice in the local community of Warnes. Doña Karin is a participant in the upcoming “comedor” project, in which Pisatahua is securing funds to build a kitchen for local families to sell food and goods from their community. Photo by Adam Spencer.


Pisatahu helps ensure the future of these forests, birds, and animals. And, as I experienced firsthand, they open hearts, minds, and souls to healing, creating a better future for all of us with beating hearts on this planet.

Sunset graces Lago Aquicuana from the dock at Pisatahua.


The author appreciating the beautiful “carancho” fish, with its hard, raspy scales for armor, and geometric patterns for camouflage.



Wildlife species observed during 2 weeks at Pisatahua


English Scientific Bolivian
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Band-tailed manakin Pipra fasciicauda
Bare-necked fruitcrow Gymnoderus foetidus
Black caracara Daptrius ater
Black vulture Coragyps atratus   Suchas
Black-capped donacobius Donacobius atricapilla
Black-collared hawk Busarellus nigricollis
Black-fronted nunbird Monasa nigrifrons
Blue-crowned motmot Momotus momota
Blue-gray tanager Thraupis episcopus
Blue-headed parrot Pionus menstruus
Buff-breasted wren Thryothorus leucotis
Buff-throated woodcreeper Xiphorhynchus guttatus
Chestnut woodpecker Celeus elegans
Chestnut-bellied seed-finch Oryzoborus angolensis
Chestnut-eared aracari Pteroglossus castanotis Tucancillos
Chestnut-fronted macaw Ara severus Parabachis Alinegras
Cocoi heron Ardea cocoi
Common nighthawk Chordeiles minor
Crested oropendola Psarocolius decumanus
Crimson-crested woodpecker Campephilus melanoleucus
Great egret Ardea alba
Greater ani Crotophaga major Maúris
Green-backed trogon Trogon viridis
Green ibis Mesembrinibis cayennensis
Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin
Horned screamer Anhima cornuta  Tapacare
Large-billed tern Phaetusa simplex
Laughing falcon Herpetotheres cachinnans
Long-tailed hermit Phaethornis superciliosus
Olivaceous woodcreeper Sittasomus griseicapillus
Paradise tanager Tangara chilensis  Sayabucito Mexicano
Plumbeous antbird Myrmeciza hyperythra
Purple honeycreeper Cyanerpes caeruleus
Razor-billed curassow Mitu tuberosum
Red-and-white spinetail Certhiaxis mustelinus
Red-capped cardinal Paroaria gularis
Red-eyed vireo Vireo olivaceus
Reddish hermit Phaethornis ruber
Ringed kingfisher Megaceryle torquata
Roadside hawk Buteo magnirostris Chuvis
Rufescent tiger heron Tigrisoma lineatum
Silver-beaked tanager Ramphocelus carbo
Snail kite Rostrhamus sociabilis
Social flycatcher Myiozetetes similis
Southern lapwing Vanellus chilensis
Southern scrub-flycatcher Sublegatus modestus
Striated heron Butorides striata
Turkey vulture Cathartes aura
Wattled jacana Jacana jacana
White throated toucan Ramphastos tucanus
White-browed antbird Myrmoborus leucophrys
White-winged swallow Tachycineta albiventer
Yellow-crowned parrot Amazona ochrocephala


English Scientific Bolivian
Agouti Dasyprocta spp. Huachi
Black-capped squirrel monkey Saimiri boliviensis Mono amarillo
Capybara Hydrochaeris hidochaeris Capiguara
Jaguar Panthera onca Tigre
Paca Cuniculus paca Jochi pintáu
Red agouti Dasyprocta variegata Jochi coloráu
Red brocket deer Mazama americana Huaso
Red howler monkey Alouatta caraya Manechi
Squirrel Sciurus spadiceus Ardilla
Tayra Eira barbara Melero
Three-toed sloth Bradypus variegatus Oso perezoso, perico


English Scientific Bolivian
Black caimain Melanosuchus niger Caiman
Golden tegu Tupinambis spp Lagartija
Yacare caiman Caiman yacare Lagarto, yacaré

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