Guyana’s rain forests, savannas and sinuous rivers are home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna and host to species that are found nowhere else in the world. The culture and warmness of Guyana’s native people is unparalleled, just as the natural resources they depend on. “Save the Giants” is a community-driven initiative, that aims to train and empower the people of Guyana to manage their ecosystems and protect the charismatic “giants” that bring these havens to life.
Hello! My name is Christina Ward – I am an artist and conservationist dedicated to preserving the wildlife of Guyana and enriching the lives of the country’s native people. In collaboration with colleagues from Surama Eco-Village, Creature Conserve, a registered 501c3 and my personal business: Colors for Conservation, we are launching the “Save the Giants” conservation initiative. “Save the Giants” will expand upon the giant otter surveys currently being conducted by local Makushi surveyors, Kenneth Butler (Surama) and Oswin Ambrose (Massara), along the Rupununi River in Region 9 of the Guyanese interior. Please visit our “Notes From the Field” pages for more information on the current field surveys.
The focal species for the “Save the Giants” project will be the iconic giant otter; an endangered species whose wild population numbers are merely speculation, due to insufficient data collection. Save the Giants will employ and train indigenous villagers to conduct proper giant otter population surveys and collect fecal samples, which will be used for genetic testing. We will be partnering with the Molecular Ecology Department of Durham University in England to complete the genetic analysis.
As giants are the focal species for data collection, they will also serve as an umbrella species for their wild “giant” counterparts. In addition to collecting data on the otters, the surveyors will collect supplemental data on the surrounding environment and patrol for signs of illegal activity, pertaining to illegal extraction, fishing and poaching. Save the Giants is partnering with Panthera Guyana to develop ways for surveyors to maximize their data collection time on the river and in the field.
As the project evolves and the trained otter surveyors become familiarized with giant otter behavior, opportunities to establish sustainable “otter watch” eco-tours will be abundant. Currently, in country, there are no tour companies who offer this type of encounter. Giant otters, with their playful and communal nature are always a delight to view in the wild, but their aversion to humans must be respected and proper guidelines must be in place when conducting an otter watch tour. Standards for appropriate giant otter eco-tourism ventures have been published by Jessica Groenendjik; communications director with San Diego Zoo Global, Peru. Jessica’s extensive field research on giant otters allowed for the creation of a standardized data collection methodology, which will be used during our otter surveys.
OUR VISION: That giant otters are protected and their populations stable throughout their range in South America by 2025.
OUR MISSION: To bring artists, scientists, members of local communities, and all who love giant otters together to celebrate, study, and protect them.
As fall and winter begin in the US, the dry season in Guyana is just starting. The rains have moved out, water levels starts to recede and the giant otters begin to reappear from their elusive rainy season locations. During this season, it is not uncommon to observe new cubs undergoing their rigorous swim tests and clumsy one year cubs scrambling to catch fish along the river’s edge. Mom and dad otter are never too far out of sight. They stay on constant alert and never let their guard down.
Save the Giants begins otter surveys as soon as the river banks emerge from the water and there are signs of otters in the area: fresh latrines, scratch marks, tail slides and fresh den digs. During the first few surveys, there are few, if any actual otter sightings. Mama otters are holed up in the dens and are busy tending to their newborn cubs, papa otters are busy tending to mama otters and juvenile otters are tending to the younger cubs from the previous year. It’s definitely a family affair, all “paws” on deck situation!
On the last survey, conducted by our field manager, Kenneth and our boat captain/research assistant, Oswin they ran into one of our favorite otter families! We have observed this particular group for over 3 years and I cannot recall conducting a river survey where we didn’t run into these guys. Giant otters are matriarchal, (where my ladies at?). In this group, we have given our alpha female the name “Pac Man (woman),” because of her oddly shaped and almost “pac-manish” neck markings. If you look just close enough, you may be able to spot the shapes that we are referencing.
It is always exhilarating to see the season’s first pictures and videos come in from the field. These pictures are more than just data. These are pictures of families. Families that the team of Save the Giants have grown to love over the years. We recognize the cubs from year to year and sadly, we recognize the absence of a cub. Last year, we said goodbye to one of our favorite dominant males and watched as a younger, and perhaps more suitable young male took over his position. Field work is bitter sweet and you have to take the good with the bad. With each survey period, the team learns important lessons that help improve our data collection methods.
When a species is slowly creeping closer and closer to extinction, every single individual matters. The data that we collect on each survey is critical in mapping the population distribution and gene flow of the giant otters in Guyana and ultimately to the long term preservation of this species.
With all of that being said, this project would not be possible without all of YOU back at home. Your support, both emotionally and financially continues to be the backbone of this effort. The otters, as well as the entire team, send you a GIANT THANK YOU!
It is with the greatest pleasure that Save the Giants would like to introduce Shannon Holland! Shannon is the newest STG’s team member and will be serving as the Yupukari Field Naturalist. Last month kicked of our monthly surveys, which we will conduct until rainy season hits again – typically around June. Let’s hear what Shannon has to say:
This September otter survey, for me, was really a learning experience on how to go about doing the field research, especially the first two days with Kenneth. Unfortunately for us the water level was still quite high which reduced our chances of finding otters but at the same time lucky for us, the higher river banks were showing. The otters used those lands mostly as campsites, so Kenneth and I were collecting data on these campsites and taking pictures as well. No otters were seen during those two days of surveying with Kenneth (probably due to the water level). After ten days I resumed the otter survey to finish off the remaining days and the water level had drop considerably and I encountered active otter holts and more campsites which leads me to believe that the otters have returned from God knows where. But still no Otters! only signs and lots of them!!!
Picture of Kenneth. Returning from Simouni late in the afternoon, eyes peeled hoping to spot some otters.
Picture of Shannon looking at a fresh camp site! and it was literally minutes old.
Well, no otter sightings yet, but they have definitely moved back into their dry season quarters. In the next few months, we will start to see more activity on the river and hopefully, by January, get a glimpse of this year’s cubs!
Have you ever wondered how the IUCN collects all of the data needed to put together a species distribution map? Personally, I have pondered this very subject and always considered the process to be an incredibly daunting task. In the latest adventures of Save the Giants, we traveled to Peru to attend the first International Symposium for Giant Otter Conservation and had the opportunity to participate in the “re-mapping” process for giant otters…exciting! Representatives from 6 of the 9 current GO range countries (Guyana, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil ) AND Argentina (a country where giants are considered extinct came to the table with an incredible new plan to re-intro populations!) attended the symposium and over the course of 3 days we came together to literally piece together the data to create an accurate projection of the current giant otter range. Data from Suriname and French Guiana is still being collected. We can now use the new data to make important conservation action recommendations to the IUCN and other influential NGOs, as well as local governments within each country.
The “re-mapping” process was intense and at times extremely complicated. No worries though! In the diagram below, you will find a detailed outline of the steps taken to recreate the range map. If you have further questions, please reach out to us! As always, thank you for your support!
It has been awhile since the blog has been updated and I apologize for that! There is a good reason for the delay, however. Save the Giants has been incredibly busy planning and working to secure funding for the November trip which just took place and also for the upcoming February training and monitoring workshop. The November trip was great! Short, but we collected a bunch of new and interesting data as we started surveying different sections of the Rupununi River. Typically based of Karanambu, we ventured further south this visit to Yupukari Village, where we stayed at the Caiman House Eco-Lodge and Research center. The village is well known throughout the region for their commitment to conservation and we are so thankful to be joining the team! In addition to conducting our otter monitoring survey, we met with the village’s Tousha and came up with some great ideas for the upcoming February workshop. In February, we would like to structure our workshop to include breakout sessions that focus on wetland ecology, giant otter biology, ecotourism, water quality and one health issues that are escalating throughout the region. We are also bringing down enthusiastic artists from the States who will work with native, Guyanese artists to teach crafts to other community members. These crafts can be utilized in the development of merchandise that can be sold in village shops as an additional source of income.
If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to continue reading this blog entry, as I will try and summarize some of the biggest threats to both human health and the region’s wildlife/biodiversity. Hopefully this entry will help bring to light the importance of our work and why funding for this project is critical.
I try to stay positive in the blog posts and always highlight the “that was awesome” moments in the field. However, on this last visit down the gloomy cloud of reality was never too far in the distance. The wildlife trade, which I have spoke about before, is alive and thriving. The export facility in Georgetown that was previously shut down is now back up and running and the melancholy calls of parrots and chattery primates can be heard as you pass by on the road. It breaks my heart to know this facility, with floor to ceiling rusted caging that is full of scared and exposed wildlife, is once again operating. The horrible contrasting images of wild macaws, flying side by side with their mate clash with the images of crowded cages full of these beautiful birds; stressed out to the point that most of them have started plucking their feathers out. They pluck their feathers as a stress response and create large bald spots on their body which wildlife traders consider unsightly. Only the finest specimens can be shipped out to customers. For this reason, traders over harvest the birds (and other species); taking more from the wild than their permits allow to ensure that at least a few of the animals will still be in suitable condition come shipping time. What happens to the rest of the animals that are too shabby to be sent out…well, the facility is conveniently located directly over the inland waterway that connects with the Atlantic Ocean. An easy method of disposal for unwanted critters. The team of Save the Giants hopes to offset the pressures of the trade by educating local villages on the dangers of over harvesting wildlife and providing an alternative source of income, through eco-tourism and otter monitoring field ranger programs.
Another horribly disturbing development within the interior is the recent encroachment of rice farmers, who are leeching in from Venezuela and Brazil. Paddling along the river one day, close to the base of the Kanaku Mountains, we all stopped and looked at each other with confused glances as we listened to the sounds of an airplane flying low overhead. Where in the world was this plane going and where had it came from? There is only one flight service from Lethem to Georgetown and we were nowhere near the landing strip. These were the planes being used by rice farmers to spray chemicals on the savannas. When speaking with the Tousha of Yupukari, he made it clear that he had been trying for months to find out exactly what chemical was being sprayed. After contacting multiple government agencies with questions about the chemicals, he was left with nothing more than shrugs and “I don’t knows” from the persons he spoke with. Yupukari Village was not informed about the chemical applications, nor did they have a say in the matter. These chemicals ultimately end up in the river. A river which feeds, hydrates, cleans and provides recreation to villagers all along its banks. The effects of these chemicals on the villagers and the wildlife in the region are unknown at this time. By introducing water quality monitoring techniques, we are hopeful that we can assist the village in making and enforcing decisions regarding how their natural resources are managed.
The escalating tension between villagers and wildlife is becoming much more apparent along the rivers. Net fishing, which is illegal yet rarely enforced, is growing in scale. On any given trip down the river, you will see a handful of people casting nets that span all the way across the river from bank to bank. Often times, the nets are set in place and left overnight. Caiman, usually with no intention of doing so, tear holes in the nets or become entangled in them. This does not sit well with the fisherman who is trying to make a living off of his trade. There were several reports of floating, belly-up caiman, who were shot and killed by bow and arrow. These conflicts are not restricted to caiman. Otters are notoriously opportunistic feeders and when there is a net full of fish, otters will tear holes in the nets to grab what they can. Once again, fisherman do not look kindly on this behavior. It is my hope, that the otters are a bit more stealthy than the caiman and can continue to evade the fisherman. These stories of human/animal conflict are not new and will not go away without intervention. Save the Giants will be teaming up with local researchers who have been working on solving these types of conflicts. Together, we will work on interviewing villagers along the Rupununi using a one health assessment survey, developed to gauge perceptions towards wildlife. Using the data we collect, we will work with villages to come up with informed and sustainable solutions to some of these problems.
Having said all of that, here are a few of the highlights from the trip!
We were so happy to see some of our favorite otter faces on the river! We were also ecstatic to have our newest conservation biologist, Bridgette, join us in the field! She has been a tremendous asset to the team! With the giant otter knowledge she brings to the table and her fundraising capabilities, Save the Giants is pleased to welcome Bridgette onboard!
Creature Conserve and Save the Giants is honored to welcome Becky Sheel to the team! Just finishing her masters work at Georgia Tech in digital media with a focus on animal conservation, Becky has already made huge contributions in the field. Working with the IUCN and other science affiliated organizations, Becky reconstructed the Red Panda Network’s website, including an interactive map of red panda population trends. Be sure to check out her work in the links below. Citizen Science is a growing hot topic in the conservation world and Becky created a site for Audubon, which allows people from all over the world to input data. In addition, Becky researchers the efficacy of drone usage in conservation efforts. She recognizes the importance of visually appealing, interactive graphics in not only explaining your project’s work, but as important tools used to explain to donors, gov’t, and the public what your work is accomplishing in terms of conservation.
Moving forward, Becky will be analyzing the field data collected on giant otters and constructing a similar range-wide population map, similar to the one created for the Red Panda Network.
The Save the Giants team is so grateful to have such innovative and compassionate thinkers onboard with our mission. Welcome Becky!