But Virrilá is not just important because of its flamingoes, but also because it is a refuge for several species of marine fauna, including the green turtle (Chelonia midas), which migrates from the Galapagos Islands.
Víctor Pulido, the renowned biologist, has described the area as “the first place inland where the Dominican seagull (Larus dominicanus), usually an island dweller, has been found to nest”.
Such indisputable merits lead Pulido to state that “it qualifies easily as a Ramsar site of international importance”.
Virrilá is 1.5 kilometers wide and is filled with sea water at high tide and, with the incessant comings and goings of the Pacific, shoals of fish feed on the rich nutrients that exist there.
The Last Mangrove
From Virrilá, if we travel from north to south along the shoreline, we find ourselves in an almost unknown forest of lustrous green leaves that would seem to drink from the salt water.
This is San Pedro, the most southern mangrove on the American continent. Tumbes is not the only place in Peru to boast such an ecosystem.
In the last few kilometers of the journey, just before reaching the ocean, the Piura River deviates from its course and flows parallel to the sea for some seven kilometers, forming an area of vegetation composed basically of trees known as black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) along both banks of its mouth. This meeting of fresh river water with the salty ocean covers an area of 450 hectares.
Enormous iguanas descend from the dry trunks while Peruvian woodpeckers (Pytotoma raymondis), a bird endemic to Peru, perch above. Other tropical climate species, such as the elegant frigate bird (Fregata magnificens), seem to dance in the air, while a group of caracara (Caracara cheriway) can often be seen perching on one of the islets as they hunt for some tasty morsel provided by the sea.
The environmental organization Edhuco-Perú, headed by the biologist César Chávez, has reported, as part of its study of the zone’s biodiversity begun in July 1998 and concluded in December 2004, 74 species of birds both resident and migrant, 44 species of phanerogams (seed producing plants), 60 species of protozoa, as well as four species of mammals – and it claims not to have completed its inventory to date.
“This ecosystem is in danger”, warns César, “due to irrational felling of the mangrove, fishing of young fish and the possible polluting of the Piura River in its higher reaches by mining activity, coupled with the problem that this area still has no regulations governing its use”.
When the orange sun sank beneath the waves to bless us with one of the most beautiful sunsets of our entire national coastline, old and weathered crab fishermen could be seen crossing the mangrove in their old rowing boats to remove the homemade traps set early in the morning in the quiet waters of San Pedro. They catch an average of thirty crabs a day.
Sun, Water and Life
The lakes of Ñapique and Ramón are accessed from Kilometer 927 of the Pan-American Highway. It is a tortuous route only suitable for experienced drivers and four-wheel drive vehicles. As well as tire tracks, the innumerable fresh tracks of foxes can be seen in the hot sand. If it were not for the shade of trees it would be impossible to stand the hot, white sunlight that seems to make the air tremble and blur the forms of this desolate part of the world.
But do not be deceived, for as soon as one approaches the shores of these lakes hundreds of birds can be seen: herons, cormorants, sea gulls and migratory birds, all of them fishing. They catch their submerged prey in their sharp beaks and even the fastest fish fall victim to them. Pure and simple survival.
After a few minutes of relaxation, the birds throw themselves once more into the implacable rhythm of their daily lives to the accompaniment of the incessant din of squawking, screeching and beating wings. For as far as the visitor can see, the Sechura desert is covered with green spots of vegetation, a product of the recent torrential rains.
The El Niño phenomenon brings out the other side of the desert: its abundance. Vestiges remain of La Niña, a great body of fresh water (more than 270,000 hectares) formed just a few meters from the ocean when the Piura and La Leche (in Lambayeque) rivers burst their banks during the 97-98 El Niño.
That year only Lake Titicaca was larger than La Niña. And at the beginning of this century dozens of local fishermen launched their boats on the new lake each morning, returning in the evenings with quantities of local species, including river shrimps. Today only strips of moist earth remain, but this body of water will almost certainly return one day.
Upon a canvas of white sand dunes constantly being sculpted by the wind and bordered by dry forests, the Sechura desert (over an area of 40,000 hectares) has shown itself capable of being transformed into three original explosions of life. Let us hope it will be allowed to stay that way.