Tourists are leaving clothes and other trinkets for uncontacted tribes in the Peruvian Amazon on "human safaris," according to a local Amazon Indian organization.
The trinkets could be making them sick.
Peru's Manu National Park and its Madre de Dios Reserve have each been popular tourist destinations for birdwatchers and people wanting to take trips into the Amazon river. But recently, tour groups leaving out of Cuzco and other nearby towns have begun showing tourists members of the uncontacted Mascho-Piro tribe, who have apparently been increasingly showing up along the Madre de Dios river.
"We are regularly sent images of the Mashco-Piro by tourists, and it seems that they are now coming to the riverbank on an almost daily basis," Alice Bayer, a spokesperson for the human rights group Survival International, told me in an email.
Contacting these people, who have lived in the Amazon for centuries, isn't a good idea: Studies have shown that, when a group is contacted, many of them often die out very quickly. There are a few reasons for this, but, most importantly, they haven't been exposed to diseases that people who live in outside society have spent generations building up immunities to.
That's why, when a Peruvian uncontacted tribe made contact with a group in Brazil earlier this year, it was so concerning. In fact, all of the tribe members who made contact eventually got the flu.
FENAMAD, a Peruvian group that represents contacted indigenous tribes in the Amazon, wrote in a Facebook post earlier this week that there's already evidence that the Mascho-Piro may be getting sick from the items that tourists are leaving for them.
"The photos taken [by tourists] show that these people are sick," the group wrote. "One of them has an open wound on her leg and left arm with the ribs protruding, while the kids seem to be malnourished and have parasites."
An internet search in both Spanish and English didn't turn up any tour groups who were specifically advertising tours to see the Mascho-Piro, but I found one tourist who says he took a photo of the tribe while on a tour. Having traveled extensively through Peru, I know that most tours are organized on the ground through small shops and outfits with no web presence; illicit tours like this often spread through word-of-mouth and aren't specifically advertised anywhere except perhaps on a small sign outside of a tour operator shop.
In 2011, the last time the tribe was seen, they appeared to be healthy, the group FENAMAD said. The group said that it's time for the Peruvian government to set up guard posts to monitor the situation, and that tours to the area have to stop.
FENAMAD believes that the Mascho-Piro are showing up more often because the people are leaving these gifts, but they don't know that the gifts could be getting them sick.
Peru's government "should investigate the business of tourism and other groups that are taking advantage of our brothers, the Mascho-Piro, who are exposing them to the spread of disease and are treating them like an attraction," the group wrote.