Saving the Giants – Our Vision and Mission

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.


A Change of Pace and Some Perspective

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A Change of Pace

Last month, our team returned to the field with a somewhat different agenda.  Instead of spending our days on the river, searching for signs of otter and the otters themselves, we focused on the kids in the village.  We dedicated our time to helping out in the schools, taking the kids on adventures, swimming, playing, laughing, and listening. Listening to what the kids had to say and the silly stories they had to tell.  Listening to their needs and wants and just taking the time to slow down and be present in their lives for a short while. It was a refreshing and welcomed change of pace. Although our hearts are full and our intentions for the future of the project feel more focused than ever before, we left Yupukari in tears as we said our goodbyes.  We may be worlds apart from the animals and the people we have grown so fond of during this crazy journey, but our hearts and sense of purpose remain with them.

In 2019, Save the Giants intends to push our conservation strategy forward with a focus on the health, education, and well being of the people who bring this project to life.  The people who live in harmony with the animals that we are trying to save. We will tell THEIR stories. The stories that will truly inspire. We made a promise to the children of Yupukari Village to provide them with the resources they need to learn, laugh, play, and thrive. We intend to make good on that promise, and we welcome all of you to join us! Please enjoy this story about the children of Yupukari…


Yupukari Primary school is modest, to say the least.  One long, wooden building, with a tin roof and enough space to uncomfortably fit 4-5 different classes at a time. There are no classrooms, just spaces that are divided by chalk boards and other random physical barriers. On one such barrier hangs a hand drawn illustration of the “Lifecycle of a Cockroach.”  On another, the daily prayer. The chalkboards have been used and erased so many times that the new writing just kind of fades into the accumulated layers of chalk dust. Filling the spaces between the barriers are wooden tables and chairs, that they call desks. The building is hotter than usual because the main solar battery died, and there is no power to provide proper ventilation. The kids move outside during the afternoon classes because it is “cooler.”  The headmaster has a small office in the corner of the wooden building, and you can poke your head in and ask to borrow a stapler or tape. Paper is a scarce resource because it is expensive and hard to come by in the interior, so the kids are provided with small journals for their daily assignments. Between each class a bell sounds, the kids all stand and, in unison, recite the daily prayers and school pledge. The kids all wear uniforms. Some are a brilliant purple, some navy, some grass green, and for the youngest group: black gingham.   

Today’s assignment: an essay, with an emphasis on composition. The kids are to write about three things in their lives that are important.  All of the boys follow the teacher’s example: food, family, and football. The 3 F’s! The girls branch out a little with a few different topics, but for the most part they all chose to write about the same things in life that mean the most to them. We are helping out in the 6th grade class, and our job is to be scribes for the students who are having trouble putting their thoughts on paper. I learned quite a bit during this exercise.  The most popular food items: chicken and rice, fish, and the Amerindian staple, farine: a couscous-esque dish made of cassava. One student says to me: “my family is plenty,” which, upon further inquiry, means that he has lots of siblings: 5 sisters and 4 brothers! Not an unheard of ratio in Amerindian culture. There are lots of giggles and whispers, as the children aren’t really used to having two white women sit with them during their studies. I think I finally won them over though with my spot-on impression of a giant otter snort!  Even the older boys who were trying so hard to be cool gave in and had a good laugh.

One of the big goals for Save the Giants in 2019 is the construction of a science center for the village youth.  The science center will serve as a multi-use facility. Per teacher request, the building will provide the school with extra space and, if all goes as planned, provide the kids with access to proper science and lab equipment. We will also utilize the space to incorporate a small visitors’ center, where tourists can visit, check out field guides, and interact with the children. The village also lacks a gift shop that would allow residents to make and sell their craft.  Needless to say, this project is a big deal, and we want to do all we can to ensure the kids and the community have something they are proud of and enjoy using, so we decided to interview the entire school!

In the beginning, this whole idea of asking the kids for their input on the science center seemed like a great plan.  We anticipated lots of enthusiasm from the kids with hands flying up and shouting out of ideas. We even had a big sheet of paper taped up to the chalkboard to keep track of everything the kids suggested. The headmaster introduced us to the school and as we started going into details about the science center, the group of students in front of us fell silent and gazed at us with foggy expressions.  In that moment, it was clear that these children had absolutely no concept of what an actual science center is or should be. Microscopes? A wet lab? Discovery kits? How would these kids possibly know what any of these things were that we were asking them about? Struggling to find answers to our questions, the group started listing off their favorite animals: otters, capybara, harpy eagle! Of course, a science center translated to a zoo for the children and their list of wants did not extend beyond wild animals. The teachers in the room made basic requests for paper, pens, and science related posters with proper illustrations of the solar system, anatomy, etc.  

After the kids left we sat down with the teachers and they explained to us that the kids didn’t have any encouragement to explore their environment outside of school.  They also have no reference or explanation for many of the things they might see around them. While we want to give the kids the world, it’s clear we need to start with the basics and build from there.  We learned an important cultural lesson in the classroom that day; and the experience only solidified our commitment to building the science center and the direction that Save the Giants is moving. Please stay tuned for a more detailed description of our goals in 2019!


They’re Back!

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!

NOW – enjoy some otter pictures!PAC MANS CUB 1pac man1485c26a-0c14-48c1-9fd1-3d55fdeb4f80e2754cf7-4040-47e4-b727-a494011d2834f2187215-a61e-4415-80be-b43707cec8f8 2e6218477-7ddd-4ad6-a22c-216682f079ed

Updates from the Field!

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:

Hello all,

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.
Kenneth on the Prowl
Kenneth, always with his eyes peeled
Perhaps we shall call him “Shoeless Shannon”

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!


Redrawing the Map!

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!

redrawing the mapIMG_4945IMG_4994IMG_4972IMG_4977IMG_4989IMG_4986IMG_4987IMG_4955Resized_20180523_160119 2

Updates from the Field – November 2017

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!