In The Great Amazon Pharmacy

Dear readers, As I write this column, I am sitting in a lodge up the Amazon river outside of Iquitos, Peru. The temperature is hot, the humidity is high, and the day has been punctuated with sights of monkeys swinging from trees, and views of pink freshwater dolphins swimming in the waters of the river.

For the past nine days, I have led a group of students from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and from Smith College, in a medicinal plant study course "The Shaman's Pharmacy." We have investigated some of the primary medicinal plants of the Amazon rainforest, and have hiked deep into unspoiled jungle off the trail, stopping to observe splendid flowers, rare birds, gigantic spiders, and a plethora of sights unavaliable elsewhere. We have spent time with shamans who know the medicinal uses of hundreds of plants, have played with capybara (huge rodents the size of big dogs), have scratched the heads of wild parrots, trumpet birds and macaws, handled snakes and tarantulas and have climbed high above the canopy on a special walkway to see the greatest rainforest on earth from above.

None of the students on this study program have ever been to the Amazon before. Yet despite the sweat, bugs and general lack of amenities, they have enjoyed an experience that they describe as one of the greatest in their lives. And while I would like to imagine that this is due to my sparkling personality as a teacher and guide, I know that the effect of this trip owes to the majesty of nature and the immensity of the Amazon. It also owes to the many native people who have led us through the forest, have introduced us to various animals and plants, have sung songs to us, fed us various native foods, taken us fishing and have shared their way of life.

We are all natural beings, though many people have lost their fundamental connection to nature. But in the Amazon rainforest, the visitor is confronted by over 80,000 types of different plants, and a variety of wildlife found nowhere else. So it is a pity and a tragedy that the Amazon rainforest continues to be cut down at a rate equal to the acreage of France every year, and that a total of 30 million animals, birds and exotic insects are taken from the area each year to satisfy the exotic pet trade.

When I first stayed in the Amazon in 1997, I saw hundreds of alligators daily. On this trip, we have seen none, as alligators are made into boots, handbags and belts for the fashion industry. Beautiful mahogany trees are cut down for decking on fancy homes, rosewood trees are removed for the frangrance industry, and vast areas of rainforest are leveled for cattle grazing to saisfy a burger-crazed market.

By taking sixteen students into the rainforest for introductory studies, I hope that some will feel inspired to take up the cause of fighting for Amazon conservation. There are many worthy causes in the wolrd, and this is one of mine. In the Amazon, when you go to sleep at night, you hear the sounds of a million creatures large and small, a complex symphony that is spellbinding.

On a couple of nights, we went out in boats, and then drifted along silently on the river, gazing at a sparkling firmament of brilliant stars, feeling warm wind on our faces, and smelling the rich scents of the forest and the river. One night, a fish even leapt into our boat, causing hilarious if brief pandemonium. These are experiences that satisfy the soul.

Soon we will depart for the U.S., back to winter in New England, back to ice and snow and a very different landscape. I will return to my medicine hunting and media work, and the students will return to their studies. Listening to the passionate comments of the students, I am thrilled to have taken them here. If all goes well I will conduct this course every year, exposing other small groups of students to the mighty Amazon. And if even one of them rises to become a fierce and dedicated eco-warrior, fighting hard for the rainforest, I will be deeply satisfied. Now I must sign off and go on a night hike for spiders and creatures that roam the night. My best to you all!

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at