Come, explore Guyana's natural heritage

BY CHAS OFFUTT
Guyana Chronicle
October 4, 1999


When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world. John Muir

During the next three weeks, the Chronicle will transport you deep into the interior, as guests of Guyana's pristine, diverse, and even vulnerable natural heritage.

While visiting jungles, rainforests, and Savannahs of Region Eight and Nine, we will explore the vast richness that accompanies the people, land and culture. The objective is to build pride; promote a nation whose biodiversity is opulent and bountiful, but at times susceptible to increasing demands on our natural resources.

Our first visit will be Karanambo Ranch, potential Private Nature Reserve for the Giant River Otters. Diane McTurk, self-proclaimed otter advocate, demonstrates the use of eco-tourism to aid in the preservation of the Rupununi `water dogs'.

Our next stop will be Kaieteur Falls, the country's only existing national park. We will examine the success, as well as the challenges, of operating a park in Guyana. There we will also begin our look into protecting an area while preserving the natural heritage and culture of Amerindian people.

We will continue our journey to the Kanuku Mountains, where Conservation International has advocated for the country's first (and the hemisphere's last) system of protected areas. There, we will have a glimpse of the process involved in retaining culture and heritage when competing against government land titles, mining, and development.

KARANAMBO RANCH

It's five o'clock and the `love bugs' have returned home. Sinuous and lithe, the pride and joy of Karanambo Ranch erupt with a `twittering'. Or was it a `chittering'? Could it have been a `whickering?'

Whatever the noise may have been, it resonated a pleasant panic on land for Diane McTurk and her guests. Her cautious cries of warning the visitors of who was or was not an ankle biter were equally matched with adoring phrases that gave all present the true affection shared between her and the Giant River Otters (Pteronura Brasiliensis) of the Rupununi.

The afternoon frenzy, familiar to Diane for over 17 years, multiplied. The otter's bellows intensified. Pluto, Laura, Peter, and Philsonias knew what was next. The routine was familiar to them, ritualistic for Diane. About 30 otters have followed in the same footsteps as the four who currently reside at Karanambo.

Feeding time

This is the time when overly jealous pet owners easily confuse affection and excitement with pure, raw, wrenching hunger. However, these `dogs' despite their playful and inquisitive appearance are no pets. Hidden are 36 barbed teeth, including bone-crushing molars, which are used for catching fish and an occasional caiman. Revealed are the round and gentle facial features, resembling the contours of a slightly plump young child.

In order to be a domesticated pet, the owner must establish guidelines for the animals to obey. At Karanambo Ranch, there are no rules to obey, only routines to follow. The policy is simple, it is an open door. Injured, orphaned, and curious otters have all visited; staying only as long as they need or desire.

As a rancher herds his cattle, Diane rounds up the only truly amphibious members of the weasel family and directs them toward their living quarters for a rub down and then bed. Chaos soon spreads as the otter's long, muscular bodies and adventurous spirit command the attention of Diane and her helpers, but routine sets in with each whooping call and they returned to formation.

Due to the wet season, fish are able to spread out making them difficult to catch. Beef is the substitute this afternoon. An otter's appetite is proportionate to the size of the animal. The size can vary from three feet to six feet and weigh as little as 10 pounds and as much as 70. Healthy river otters are the top predators in the food chain and can eat as little as three pounds to as much as 10 pounds a day.

With each click of the shutter, believing it to be as great and as worthy as any National Geographic photo, the guests watch with wonder. The show continued. One final dip, then another, and another; each otter performing, similar to a competition, for the attention of its surrogate mother. The towel went to work, dutifully drying the fur which is so dense that water never reaches the skin. However, with each attempt, the otters grow even more playful, losing interest in the idea of bed time.

Only Peter followed the routine he has known for the past three years since he was asked to leave a local zoo for aggressive behaviour. Blankets up to his chin, Peter modelled the perfect otter bedtime behaviour and patiently waited for his temporary brothers and sisters to follow. They never did. The bedtime stories, which appeared to be the only ingredient missing, were saved for the guests by the savvy Guyanese-born host until rum punches could be served and time could be spent.

Karanambo Ranch, located in the Savannah on the Rupununi River between the Amerindian villages of Massara and Yupakari, has been in the family since the 1930s. After 20 years of living in England, Diane returned home and coincidentally got involved in otter preservation when a neighbour brought an injured `water dog'. In 1986, Diane opened her home to welcome guests who enjoyed her similar passion towards nature, preservation, and the Giant River Otters.

In addition to being a well-known tourist destination, an assessment was done on the feasibility of designating Karanambo Ranch a Protected Area. During April of 1995, a Rapid Rural Appraisal of local Makushi communities combined with an Environmental Impact Assessment concluded with the recommendation of an established research station accompanied by a small Nature Reserve. Since that time efforts have been made in the development of a private Nature Reserve.

The Nature Reserve would also include the protection of Giant River Turtles, Arapaima, and Black Caiman which are considered endangered species of the Rupununi and are protected under the Fisheries (Aquatic Wildlife Control) Regulations Cap. 71:08 of the Laws of Guyana.

However, because of limited funds and sometimes even less government vision due to immense societal pressures, we are forced to take on a greater individual responsibility with development, tourism, and conservation. With species of our wildlife endangered, natural resources disappearing, and indigenous people's voices silently pushed aside, what will remain of our innate and at times fading connection with the natural world?

Serving as a link to history, the first aquatic otter appeared in fossil records 30 million years ago. This vital connection supports the need for preservation, and, one day, a greater understanding of how natural systems evolved and survived development, technology, and an increase in population.

Karanambo Ranch appears to be taking on the challenge. Through the dedication, commitment, and passion of those who live at Karanambo, awareness has been created. Supporting the movement are the many guests who visit the otters and Diane, each taking a piece of the history and love for nature that is shared at Karanambo.

The fur trade movement, up until 1970, has reduced the Giant River Otters to an estimated 2 000 - 5 000 and they are found only in remote tropical waters of South America. Between 1950 and 1970, Peru alone exported some 20 000 pelts. Even though legislation has banned further export of pelts, hazards continue to exist.

The otters are also found in the Essequibo and Potaro Rivers. Their primary food source, fish, may have declined through straightening streams, lowering water levels, shore construction, and activities that promote silting and clouding of streams. Research outside of Guyana have found otters with toxic levels of the insecticide DDT and environmental pollutants such as PCBs and Cesium, either through agriculture and/or industry. Even though conclusive studies may not have been conducted in Guyana, potential hazards are present.

Thirty-five multinational mining companies operate in Guyana, holding about 40 per cent of the surface area of the country. Omai's much publicised disastrous spill of 3.2 billion cubic litres of cyanide-laced wastes in the Essequibo, and mercury, the primary extractor of gold, are immediate factors that potentially contaminate water sources.

The threats are looming; research is not needed when the factors are present. Mining and logging are comfortable government practices, but is it sustainable? What will be left of the rivers and forests when they leave?

For Diane and Karanambo Ranch, they are choosing a more proactive approach. They are challenging others about what they may already know about our natural heritage, tempting the soul to follow the passion, and encouraging the mind to act with the heart; because life is not always where we will go, but how we will get there.

For more information concerning Karanambo Ranch and other tours in the Rupununi, please contact Wilderness Explorers. Telephone number 62085 or website: www.interknowledge.com

KAITEUR FALLS

FORTY-FIVE thousand gallons of water a second explodes over the 450 foot edge, changing colour, shape and strength as it comfortably cascades 741 feet to the basin.

Commanding respect from all visitors, any angle, night and day; Kaieteur Falls, Guyana's first and sole protected area, stands alone and at times naked in the battle to conserve the country's rich, diverse, and even vulnerable natural heritage.

A moment of clarity surfaced as the afternoon clouds drifted over the horizon, creating a vacancy in the sky above, allowing the Swifts to partake in the ritualistic gathering over the falls.

"There must be thousands," screamed the youngest Cub Scout perched on the cliff's edge. Eager and excited, the boy's eyes were fixed on every move. He knows what happens next; he's been told plenty of times. The mind did its best to wonder, despite what he knew.

He imagined the birds eyeing a makeshift plank, taking one final gulp, then as a plane dives on a video game, down they went. Not one or two, but hundreds at a time. Making the sounds as planes do when they dive, the boy threw in machine gun fire. "Knock it out" belched the leader with a gentle tap of the elbow, interrupting his imagery.

This is nature he has been told; you have to appreciate it. Why? He would ask, but never a response. The boy didn't quite understand why he was going to spend two weeks in Kaieteur, working side by side with nature. But it's Kaieteur, he was told, the highest single drop in the world. The word world, grabbed his attention, it sounded big. The chest inflated. Feeling proud, the boy didn't dare ask where the world was.

The Swifts dove, graceful as any swan dive. To the bottom of the falls they went, one after another, until they were quietly perched behind the dominant cascade. It must be a huge cave, the boy thought, filled with skeletons and jumbies. That sounded exciting, more than a National Park. This time, he was determined to keep it to himself.

In 1929, the Dutch opened the Park's doors, declaring the 9.9 square miles that surrounded Kaieteur Falls the country's first national park. That figure increased to 44 square miles in 1945 and again on March 9, 1999 to 224 square miles. It sure sounded big to the boy as he overheard the conversation. Impressed with his own calculations, the boy exclaimed, "wow, that's like two or three Queenstowns put together."

"Almost", blurted a peer, careful not to deflate the boy's confidence, "it's more like the size of St Lucia". Wow, thought the boy, knowing that St. Lucia is not in Guyana - that is a lot of room to play cricket.

Feeling a part of the conversation, the boy continued to listen to the author's inquisitive ramble about the latest extension of the Park. The boy remembered hearing his parents talk about something similar. He knew they were upset, but couldn't understand why. He wondered why people would be angry if they could play cricket in two fields instead of one.

The boy began to lose interest as the author talked about the need of validation, how interpersonal relationships are based on this premise. Rapport can only be created if there is an effort made to identify and understand another's situation, feelings, and motives.

The people of Chenapou believed that the government should have addressed their land claim before extending the Park.

With a slight chill in the room due to more than 75 window panes broken, the boy left the building. Avoiding the damaged stairs in the front, he slipped out the back door, cautious with each step. The sign hung in front of the building, mimicking the dilapidated condition, `Kaieteur Guest House, renovated in 1985'. He wondered if he should ask Rain Forest Tours, those who sponsored the scouts' outing, for an extension due to much-needed materials and repairs. But that idea was dismissed; two weeks was plenty for him.

The boy remembered the scouts' walk the other day when they went down to the gorge and couldn't believe that over 75 years have passed and the bridges built by the Dutch are still standing. He didn't think he would get lost, couldn't imagined how he could with one trail in the Park. But time was slow for him at Kaieteur. Everyone told him how much he would like it, how lucky he was to visit such a place. Maybe he would, in time, since he knew how few Guyanese have seen Kaieteur Falls. He thought to himself, camp experience always seems better when you're talking about it afterwards.

The boy thought about the author, reading an excerpt the previous night from the journal of Caesar Peter De Frietas, Land Surveyor for the Boundary Commission in 1931 - 1934.

"In order to see the real grandeur of the falls and its magnificence, one should spend a few days and nights up here ... then one can see the ever-changing pattern of light and shade, a rainbow now here, now there, as the sun moves across from east to west."

Funny the boy thought, most only come for an hour or two then leave. Didn't their parents tell them how beautiful it was, how much they should appreciate it? He guessed not and continued walking. Why couldn't they stay longer? What did Peter De Frietas see that others do not see? Or what am I seeing that others do not see?

The Swifts began to gather in the distance, informing him of the approaching dusk. Fears began to sink in with each unfamiliar step. Bedtime ghost stories of `Hatchet Harry' couldn't compare with the warden's talk of wild animals. The wind picked up, engulfing the immediate surroundings. Visions of Jaguars, Jaguarundis, Pumas, Ocelots, Margays, Tapirs, Giant Ant-eaters, and Peccaries were present. Once was the familiar sound of wind, evolved to the frightful call of Howler Monkeys.

Darkness was looming. Visions more life-like than life itself produced a fright greater than any creature lurking under his bed. The boy's thoughts intensified. The size of St Lucia, no vehicle, no boat, no radio ... he wanted to yell, but he thought that would only attract the animals.

Then he saw a familiar face. A face that lives in the Park. A face that has been with the scouts since they arrived. The face lived in the Tank Bromeliads that laced the trail. Everywhere he turned, he saw another. Similar to the reunion of a lost child and his mother; it was a face that over the last eight days, he had been able to recognise the best. It was a face that recognised him.

Sitting close to the edge, the Golden Frog, the size of a five dollar coin, made an offering to the boy. An offering that words have not been able to describe, a moment only extracted when alone and at peace during times of chaos and confusion. The boy attempted to get closer. Searching for direction, his arm floated toward the looming leaf.

The moment was grasped by the palm, providing an understanding that could never be communicated or even repeated to the other scouts later that night. As bright as it shone, he will spend a lifetime attempting to reconstruct the same elements that made that connection illuminate.

The Kanuku Mountains

IT IS believed that every mountain has a name, a story behind it.

Legends have graciously adorned volcanoes, peaks and ranges. Tales of love, cries of war, and myths of deception have created fear, anxiety, and pride among many indigenous people around the world. Traditionally mountains have provided a great force, a measure of strength, to the surrounding communities who seek guidance, understanding and love of the natural world.

The presence of a mountain is not only savoured in the vertical height, expansive terrain, or jagged edges. The mood that accompanies a mountain at any minute is as diverse as the shadow cast by the fringing sun. The character, ever-changing, is never completely divulged. Majestic as the spirits in any revered religion, mountains are historically represented as pillars of strength and gateways to another world.

With each geological curve, the Kanuku Mountains, located in southwest Guyana, are no different. Despite the dominance displayed by Everest's North Ridge, Mattahorn's serrated west face, or Capiton's half dome, the Kanuku Mountains offer a presence that is biologically diverse, historically significant, and culturally rich. However, immense societal pressures, current disputes over land titles, potential mining and lack of understanding what a protected area means to the people has created national skepticism.

Kanuku Mountains is one of the two areas proposed by Conservation International Guyana (CIG) to be declared a National Protected Area. Currently, Kaieteur Falls National Park and the Iwokrama Rainforest Project are the only protected areas distinguishing Guyana as the last country in the Western hemisphere that does not have in place a National Protected Area System (NPAS).

With half of the world's plant and animal species found on seven per cent of the total land area, the Kanuku Mountains are easily recognised for their conservation importance. Three hundred and fifty bird species, representing over 60 per cent of all species found in Guyana, depend on the preservation of the mountains. As well as the 150 mammal species, about 80 per cent of the mammals found in Guyana

Receiving the greatest attention is the endangered Harpy Eagle. At one time, the Harpy Eagle, communally known as `flying wolf', prospered in the forests of the neotropics, covering Southern Mexico to southern Brazil. Possibly due to increase in population and development in the mountain's foothills, the Harpy Eagles are sparse and endangered over most of the range. To survive, the Harpy Eagle needs large areas of undisturbed forests to feed on monkeys, sloths, and other arboreal mammals. At the base of Guyana's Western Kanuku Mountains, scientists have found more Harpy Eagles nests than any where else on the planet.

The two left Nappi Village, an Amerindian community 25 miles east of Lethem at the foothills of the Kanukus, and entered the `bush mouth'. The desire to experience the mountains' mood fueled their thoughts; they were at the mercy of the natural surroundings. As serenity is sometimes found during times of confusion, the unfamiliar environment offered comfort through the rich biodiversity of the Kanukus.

Macaws flew above and announced their entry. It was their time together, complimenting their own experiences through the presence of the other. The sounds engulfed their thoughts, allowing time to reconstruct the events that provided their first connection with the natural world.

Encouraged by their concerned father, two Amerindian boys joined the pair. Sent as guides, the boys' presence dispelled the visitors apparent look of confusion. Easily mistaken, the pair were not confused, only excited. A world so different, filled with an abundance of life beyond any prior experience.

They were headed to the falls, a pristine body of continuously flowing water that sustained life for many of the local Amerindian communities. Many Amerindians travel to and from their citrus, cassava and banana farms daily, each depending heavily on the mountain water that surrenders to gravity and enriches their crops.

The Kanuku Mountains, a range that does not exceed 900 metres above sea level, have historically been Amerindians' home, school, hospital, and places of worship. Only in the last 30 years have disputes arisen over the demarcation of lands. Between 1967 and 1969, the Amerindian Land Commission (ALC) surveyed lands throughout Guyana and recommended that titles be granted to 128 Amerindian communities covering 24000 square miles.

In 1976, Government amended the Amerindian Act and issued titles to 64 communities covering 4 500 square miles. Again in 1991, Government issued titles to ten more communities covering 1 500 square miles, making the total exactly 1/4 of land recommended by the ALC.

Understandably, there is great hesitation for Amerindian communities concerning NPAS. Due to the event that led to the expansion of Kaieteur Falls National Park and a long history of land disputes, Amerindian communities are concerned with Government involvement. The question that remains for many Amerindian communities is how can an area be protected while preserving the natural heritage and culture of the people?

Grant Watkins, biologist for Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, suggests that the process should be the focus, not the end result. In order to preserve the natural heritage, support has to be created for `subsistence activities' during the development of an Act. Even though meetings with the community can be expensive, involvement is necessary in creating rapport with indigenous cultures. Iwokrama, viewed as a potential model for other protected areas, currently involves 12 communities. It emphasises that conservation does not mean closure.

According to Navin Chandarpal, Advisor to the President on Science and Technology: "With so much pressure around the world on nature, it is a timely moment for Guyanese to endorse the protection of our unique natural heritage."

As pressure builds, the stakes increase, sometimes acting on instinct rather than logic.

"Even if we don't have five million dollars, and we have to start with five cents," Chandarpal said, "very shortly, we will be starting the National Protected Area programme."

The focus is blurred, the Government has approved `foreign development' in the two proposed Protected Areas by CIG. The potential `environmental clauses' created in the contract are risky, the margin of error is great. Development is inevitable and the risk is present.


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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples