Flora Bagnall in Peru

Along with The British Exploring Society and about 50 other young explorers with a huge diversity of backgrounds and experiences I travelled to the Peruvian district of Loreto where I spent five weeks exploring the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, located between two major Amazonian tributaries, The Ucayali and The Maranon. It took many days to reach Base Camp Tipishca. The journey comprised of 4 planes and a 13 hour long boat journey which provided the perfect opportunity to get to know the rest of the team and think about what lay ahead. After months of fundraising and planning I really couldn’t believe what I was doing and had several ‘pinch me moments’, especially when I saw my first pod of river dolphin whilst watching the Amazonian sun set from the deck of our boat.

The explorers were divided up into groups of 10-15 known as Fires. It amazed me how quickly I started to really get on with everyone and settle into expedition routine. My senses were constantly being bombarded, the heat and humidity, the smells, the sounds of distant Howler monkeys or Donkey birds. I was just blown away by how alive my new environment was, everywhere I looked I discovered some out of this world looking beasty. I particular remember noticing the purity of the air from all the oxygen being chucked out by the dense, surrounding vegetation.

Our Scientific objective for the expedition was to collect data to help understand the diversity of Fauna and Flora in the area and explore climate change and human factors in the region. In our Fires we would spend many days creating new paths to push deep into the untouched jungles to establish satellite camps. Along the way we used GPS and cartographic skills to map the area and paths, whilst recording species and considering the future of Pacaya Samiria. This was the first year BES have been to the area so we were setting the base line for future expeditions and leaving a legacy by creating ID guides, maps and methods, collecting data that future years can compare their findings with. For me my favourite science was the night walks and bat surveys using bat detectors to distinguish between species depending on their frequency and making their ultrasonic echolocation calls audible to the human ear. Other projects included pitfall and camera trapping, arboreal entomology  work, butterfly surveys and aquatic research using hydrophones to listen to pods of dolphins and sampling the water and sediment of the rivers, Cotchitas and Cotchas. I was never bored, I would be up at 5:30 every morning to watch birds at dawn and up late doing night walks and moth surveys.

 We were fortunate to be really engaged with the local people , many were our guides who were able to share generations of local knowledge and enrich our experience and understanding.  The Reserve supports around 9500 indigenous people of the Caracara people who are becoming progressively more involved in collaborations to develop and maintain management of the 2,080,000 ha. reserve. Gabino and Sergio our guides helped me with my Spanish and loved telling  me about the traditional uses of the plants such as the Wasai Palm, used for treating fevers and even Malaria.  We spent a little time with a local San Martin school doing art with the kids and playing football with them, the children’s energy and enigmatic smiles were infectious!

I was honestly the happiest I’ve been in years during my five weeks on expedition. Yes I was muddy, stinky and  covered in bites but I really couldn’t care less. To be free of walls, ceilings, technology and stresses of work and money was so refreshing!  I felt so privileged to be surrounded by such positive  and open minded  young people. Initially I found the lack of personal space challenging but learnt to relax more around my team mates and see each other as a little jungle family, we soon grew really close and I think that this was mainly due to working hard as a team to accomplish demanding tasks in foreign, challenging conditions such as the daily water run, carrying an 80kg barrel as a team back to camp, coordinating the scientific projects, macheteing through dense jungle in boiling hot conditions etc. a world away from our comfy, materialistic lives in the UK. For me the biggest lesson  was learning to be in the present, in the moment and not always worrying about what I need to do next and getting ahead. Each day I tried to spend some time just fully embracing where I was and my surroundings by sitting and just observing, it was amazing how much more I noticed, especially as when you are being still and quiet, all sorts of more timid wildlife emerge.

All the BES science leaders were so passionate and encouraging. I was often left speechless upon learning about the amazing complexity of the diverse life forms and interactions in our surrounding environment. It was fantastic to learn so many new scientific methods and I really feel I’ve furthered my knowledge and understanding of the world of conservation science. I feel  inspired to make my passion for the natural world my life’s work (I know that may seem terribly naïve coming from a 19 year old but I really do!) This expedition has opened my eyes to some of the real issues facing our planet and has made me all the more determined to pursue a career in conservation biology.  I aspire to be at the forefront of scientific discovery, leading my own research projects to help fight these pressing environmental  issues and find solutions to help preserve the amazing biodiversity that I have now  been fortunate enough to experience.  I am looking forward to the challenge of studying Zoology with French at Bristol University.

After having struggled with severe eating disorders since the age of 12, recovery has been a long, difficult journey. Expedition taught me that life can be happy, enriching and fulfilling. For the first time in years I was able to just be Flora, Flora in her element not Flora with an eating disorder. This experience has made me even more determined to pursue recovery and throw myself into fulfilling, positive adventures, work and research. I cannot express how grateful I am to the trustees for granting me the funds to help get out to Peru. I feel so so blessed and it has made a huge impact on my life in the most fantastic of ways!