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.
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!
My last visit to the Rupununi was much different than prior visits. Typically, I visit the interior during the Dry Season, when the river is low enough to walk through. Not this time! With the Rainy Season in full throttle, the rivers had risen an amazing 30-40 feet in all directions; swelling over the banks and flooding into the savannas. Much like the disappearing river banks that line the Rupununi, the giant otters were also nowhere to be found, as they typically follow the fish into the flooded savannas and seek refuge on dry patches of land until the river recedes.
Although the absence of the otters on the rivers saddened me, the reassurance of the much needed rains returning to the region balanced everything out. It is comforting to know that when the rains stop this year, the rivers will return to their curvy channels with an abundance of fish, along with happy, healthy otters.
The trip was not a waste by any means, even with the lack of otter observation. With each visit to the interior, I meet new and wonderful people who are eager to become involved in the project. Yupakari Village hosted my stay during this trip and I cannot say enough great things about the accommodations and hospitality provided. Yupakari is the home base of the Caiman House; a facility supporting years of caiman research and giant river turtle rehabilitation programs. In addition to their current research projects, Yupakari has extended an offer to support the Save the Giants campaign! Currently, plans are in place to offer a designated otter research masters or PHD student position in the village…exciting! The student would work with local villagers to conduct otter survey work and promote a greater awareness of the otters throughout the region. Stay tuned for details on this exciting development.
Kenneth is currently working on the organization of a one week training workshop, which will teach villagers throughout the interior the standardized methodology for giant otter surveys. After the training workshop, we will have the ability to extend the otter survey into multiple locations, allowing for expanded data collection and a broader understanding on the distribution and health of the otter population in Guyana. Villages who wish to participate in the survey will be compensated for their hard work and contributions to the project.
In January, Save the Giants will conduct the annual, 3 week otter survey out of Yupakari Village. With the additional assistance of experienced Yupakari residents, we will have the opportunity to put more eyes on the river and cover more “ground” than we have in prior surveys. The Save the Giants team is certain that 2018 is going to be an otterly fantastic year!
Save the Giants Field Manager, Kenneth Butler met with the ranger staff at the Iwokrama River Lodge to discuss future plans to expand the giant otter survey. In 2009, Iwokrama conducted a population survey of giant otters on the Essequibo River and the team is excited to partner up with Save the Giants to continue giant otter conservation work in the area! Plans are in place to coordinate with Iwokrama on an otter survey in the late fall. This partnership will allow us to cover more ground and gain a more comprehensive picture of the health and abundance of otters in this area. Stay tuned for more details!
I will be heading back to Guyana next month to conduct a super quick otter survey during the rainy season. Typically, conducting an otter survey during the rainy season is a futile task. As water levels rise, otter groups move from their holts on the river into areas that are safeguarded from flooding. When the rains come and trigger the otters’ movement, tracking them is virtually impossible due to their wide spread dispersal into the corresponding pond systems along the river. Sort of like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
The past few years have been a little different in terms of rainy vs. dry seasons. During a “normal” rainy season, the river will rise up to 15 ft, swell over the banks and flood into the savannas. The flooded savannas provide perfect spawning grounds for the river’s fish. After the rains, the receding water levels will transfer the abundant fish population of the savannas back into the river. Boom! A perfect system for restocking the rivers!
2017 will mark the 3rd year in a row with inadequate rain fall during the rainy season and the 3rd year that river levels have not risen enough to spill into the savanna. This is an extremely troubling situation for fish populations and all of the creatures who depend on the fish as a dietary staple, including otters, caiman and humans.
Due to the lack of flooding this year, I am hoping to collect data on how otters respond to these abnormal seasonal shifts. I am curious to see if the otters are staying put in the rivers, or if they are still dispersing into the ponds.
Time to get out the rain sticks and do the dance!!