A botanist looks up at a man dangling 20 meters (yards) off the ground in a tree belonging to an endangered species in the Brazilian Amazon.
“Cut another branch, Zelao,” she yells.
42-year-old Jose Raimundo Ferreira, known as Zelao, wields telescopic pruning shears and wields the tool expertly, and a branch of the Itauba, whose wood is prized for making boats, falls at the scientist’s feet.
Zelao is one of the few people who can climb these Amazon trees in a matter of seconds.
Botanist Marta Pereira, who appreciates his services, says there are only about 20 people who can do what he does.
“For us, they’re vital…without them, we wouldn’t have samples,” said Pereira, a researcher at Amazon State University.
These tree climbers are even more important in an area where scientists believe they only know about 30 percent of the species’ diversity.
Dressed only in a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, Zelao climbs trees that can grow up to 50 meters high five or six times a day.
He collects fruits, leaves or cuts branches.
He also installs cameras in treetops to film birds and monkeys.
For safety, he has a harness, a rope and thick rubber-soled boots. Sometimes he climbs from one tree to another.
“It’s very risky and requires a lot of technique, a lot of physical preparation,” Zelao said, adding that he’s already had four surgeries for damaged ligaments.
Still, he has no intention of slowing down.
“It’s very difficult to find a climber. My schedule is fully booked until December 20,” he said.
Although his profession is highly sought after, these tree climbers have no job security.
They are paid by the day, without a contract and without social security.
“Your job as a field technician should be regulated and trained,” Pereira said.
Despite the risks, Zelao intends to pass the baton to his 19- and 21-year-old sons once his body says stop.
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