The Ovum Factor Book Cover

Chapter 56


The next morning was brilliantly sunny. As planned, once breakfast had been served Monteiro and Osvaldo Braga—the team’s other botanist—prepared sample collection kits and loaded these into large knapsacks. Monteiro then strapped a menacing-looking machete as well as a long hunting knife onto his thigh. David was asked to carry only a shoulder bag containing containers of water and sugar snacks. The plan was that they would forage for plant samples in this area of the jungle for no more than a few hours.

The trio approached shore in the motorized canoe and alit near a huge log that had drifted downstream and become trapped between existing vegetation. The log provided a perfect place to tie the canoe and also a convenient platform for jumping over the sodden earth near the river’s edge.

After the three had moved inland for a few minutes, Monteiro stopped and removed his knapsack.

“Before we head in further, I want to review some basic safety precautions. Please listen carefully. Your life might well depend on them.”

David shrugged off this introduction. He remembered hearing these same words as a teenager whenever going on overnight hikes at summer camp in the mountains north of New York.

“Are you listening?” asked Monteiro, noticing that his words had failed to capture David’s attention. “People often use the words ‘jungle’ and ‘rainforest’ interchangeably. But the two are entirely different. The rainforest has a thick canopy of tall trees. Because of the limited light which can penetrate within, it’s almost transparent at ground level and you can see someone walking, even from a great distance. The jungle has far fewer big trees, allowing much more light to penetrate. The result is a huge variety of plant life growing everywhere and competing for this available light.”

“Very interesting, Paulo. But why is this lecture part of your safety tips?”

“Be patient. I’m drawing this distinction for you, since where we are now is a dense jungle. This means that the person walking ahead of you will disappear from view at a distance of only fifteen or so paces.”

“Okay,” replied David with an exaggerated nod. “I get the picture. Stay close together.”

“Exactly. Keep your focus. Don’t become distracted. In any case, I will try to stay behind you wherever possible. Osvaldo will be in front and use the machete to cut our path. And one final note. Try to avoid brushing against leaves with your bare skin. You can never be sure what is waiting there for you.”

“Such as?” inquired David with genuine curiosity.

“Such as centipedes or spiders. Both can cause great unpleasantness.”

As they began their walk, David quickly understood why Monteiro had emphasized the need to remain close together. The vegetation was so thick that it was a battle to cover every step. This was especially so, since he was also busy looking down for snakes, something that caused his head to collide frequently with thick woody lianas. Monteiro saw this and laughed. He then explained the distinction between vines, which drop from the tops of trees, and lianas, which grow up from the ground, climbing whatever will support them. Both, he noted, contain alkaloids that can have potent medicinal effects. He mentioned as an example D-tubocuranine, which is obtained from the bark of a particular type of liana by crushing and boiling it. This compound was the active ingredient in curare poison.

When David heard the prefix “D,” he immediately recognized it to be the acronym for the Latin word dextra, standing for the right-handed version of this stereoisomer. Emily’s lengthy explanations at Caltech’s micro-chemical laboratory about mirror images of molecules were finally paying off.

As they moved deeper into the jungle, Monteiro could not resist talking about the incredible diversity of plant life around them.

“Do you realize that in but a single hectare—that’s only about two of your football fields—one can find several hundred different types of medicinal plant species.”

Monteiro stopped briefly at a giant sukúba tree and used his knife to cut out a small portion of its bark. A thick, whitish liquid came oozing out and quickly congealed.

“The Indians,” he said, “use this tree as the source of a natural bandage by pouring its liquid directly over any wounds.”

Then he pointed to a nearby karapanaúba tree, which he explained was the source of a compound used to regularize menstruation.

“So, it’s really like a pharmacy in here. All you need is to know what you’re looking for.”

“How did these plants find their way into our western medicine?” asked David with growing interest.

“Over the past two hundred years, researchers from all over the world came to the Amazon looking to identify new sources of medicines. But everything they discovered and brought back was already known to the Indians who had been living here for centuries. The only difference was that all this knowledge was never written down. Instead it was passed on in words and teachings from one generation to the next. This does not mean that the Indians were any less efficient than we. It was just that they have had an entirely different method for storing and transferring the knowledge.”

Just then, Monteiro noticed something unusual growing near a large fallen tree and drew Osvaldo’s attention to it. The two moved quickly to the side, bending down to examine the plant and dig out samples. While they were at work, David became fascinated with tiny pink fungi, which grew along the surfaces of many of these logs. It occurred to him that even in death the trees had become the source of life for countless types of insects and other organisms.

He was bending over to examine one beautiful such patch when he heard the sound of a macaw. Raising his head, he saw a specimen with bright crimson plumage. He walked a few paces to get a better look at it and noticed a pair of toucans nearby, recognizing them right away by their distinctive protruding beaks. He stared with fascination at these magnificent birds, wondering how long before they too would join the rapidly growing list of endangered species.

Gazing up for so long had made David disoriented and when he again looked around him, he was shocked to discover that Monteiro and Braga were no longer visible. Nor did he have any idea in which direction they might be. His first instinct was to shout for help. But he felt sheepish doing so, especially after mocking Monteiro’s safety instructions. He moved forward cautiously hoping to catch a glimpse of their colorful clothing. Yet each additional step seemed to bring him further away. He walked faster and stumbled over a liana falling forward to the ground. There was a loose stick lying nearby and as he stood he picked it up, thinking it might prove useful if he encountered any snakes.

Now a growing anxiety was starting to set in, and he began yelling as loud as he could. Furious with himself for disregarding Monteiro’s advice about not becoming distracted, he swung his stick full force against a nearby bamboo plant. In an instant huge tucandeira ants came streaming out from the earth around its base, disturbed by the vibration. They crawled over his shoes and moved quickly up his pant legs.

“Oh my God! Not these monsters again!” he shouted, trying desperately to remove them. Their bites, now familiar to him, began in quick succession. He ran to get away but, with his attention distracted, struck his head full force against a thick liana. He dropped unconscious to the ground.

He lay there for about an hour before the distant sound of a motor brought him slowly back to consciousness. It was not unlike a small outboard engine running at full throttle. A boat! He stood up and moved as quickly as he could in the direction from which the sound was coming. His head was throbbing from the impact with the liana, but the excitement of being rescued made him overlook the pain.

After covering about a hundred steps, the sound had changed and now seemed more like a steady high-pitched whirring. He was not sure what this could be but it clearly represented some form of human activity. So he continued in the direction from which it was coming. There was a small clearing ahead, and he noticed that he was now back near the river. A large, flat barge equipped with a grappling hook was at anchor, and a small seaplane was floating nearby. There were four men using chain saws to cut down two huge trees growing near the water. A fifth man was standing nearby with a rifle in his hands, looking around warily.

David was about to shout for help when he sensed that he was not alone. There were several figures moving stealthily about the jungle near him. Their skin had been painted black, allowing them to blend into the dense vegetation, and they were carrying long tubes slung over their backs. He immediately understood what was happening. The men were here illegally cutting trees, and the Indians were now stalking them. He was not sure what his best course of action was, but it was clearly no longer announcing his presence to the loggers. Just then, he heard the loud report of a rifle being fired. The sudden noise erupted in the silent jungle like a rocket, sending countless birds flying off their treetop perches.

In an instant the figures around him had dropped to the ground and quickly removed their tubes, now holding them horizontally. David realized that he was now in a battle zone. His only hope was to escape. He stood and moved quickly in the opposite direction from the loggers. Now he could clearly make out a series of whooshing sounds as projectiles seemed to be flying through the thick jungle air. There were screams from the loggers and more rifle shots. He ran as fast as he could when he suddenly felt a slight pin prick in the nape of his neck. He instinctively grabbed at it and found himself removing a tiny dart that had penetrated his skin just above the collar of his shirt.

He dropped to his knees to make himself a smaller target but quickly realized that this was now pointless. He had already been hit. But what did this mean? His heart was pounding and his head throbbed. He took a few deep breaths to try to steady his nerves. If ever he had to make the right decision it was now. Yet what could he possibly do? He was alone in a remote jungle, surrounded only by Indians who considered him an enemy. Even as these thoughts were swirling in his head, he began to feel an external force taking over his body. Every muscle was becoming flaccid, and he found himself falling painlessly onto the rough ground. He lay there, unable to move.

He now realized that he had been struck by a dart dipped in curare. He knew that this was a powerful poison causing complete paralysis of the body and its respiratory muscles. While he would remain conscious, he would very soon be unable to breathe.

He was going to die.