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Zoological Society of San Diego Conservation Field Trip to Guyana

July 18-26, 1998


We've Arrived
The Rupununi Savannah, Southern Guyana, South America

Report No.1 from the Field

This typing would go a whole lot faster, if I didn't have to pause at every other keystroke to swat at a biting insect. I'm slumped in a hammock, with my laptop where its name would indicate, trying hard to record the early events of our journey from San Diego to southern Guyana. I figure, with only four-and-a-half pints of blood in the human body, that I have at least a couple hours before these little vampires drink me dry. If this report ends in mid-sentence, you'll know why.

We've come, six staff people from the Zoological Society of San Diego , to this South American nation to continue what is now a three-year-old, multi-faceted conservation project. Our work will take us to important conferences in the capital city of Georgetown, to Guyana's National Zoo, and to the spectacular rain forest preserve at Kaieteur Falls (third largest waterfall in the world). It starts, however, here in the bug-infested Rupununi savannah of southern Guyana.

It took us 6500 miles and two full days to get here: San Diego to LA to Miami to Trinidad to Georgetown to the Rupununi. The last leg of the trip was made by twin-engined bush plane, which arrived here on a grass-and-gravel landing strip adjacent to the Karanambo Lodge.

Diane McTurk with Giant Otter
Diane McTurk with Giant Otter

Karanambo doubles as a scientific research station and ecotourism lodge (though tourists to this remote spot are few and far between). The lodge is owned and operated by Diane McTurk, a grand lady whose great-great-grandfather immigrated here from Scotland around 1790. Diane's father acquired and developed the Karanambo Ranch, covering 125 square miles of grassland, low forest, and various lagoons, creeks and rivers.

While 600 head of cattle still graze on part of the old ranch, most of the land is as wild as ever. It is home to several Amerindian villages, as well as such wonderful wildlife as the jabiru stork, the black caiman, and the howler monkey. The Rupununi River and its various tributaries and lagoons are also habitat for the rare giant river otter. The river otter, called "water dog" by the locals, can reach 68 pounds and seven feet in length, nose to tail tip. Cute little "pups" are often captured and taken home as pets; but these animals soon require large amounts of food and become quite aggressive as they get older, so their owners tire of them. That's where Diane McTurk comes in.

Giant River Otter
A Giant River Otter snacking on a pirahna.

Diane McTurk has long worked in the rehabilitation and release of orphaned river otters in this area. Now, with the help of zoo experts from San Diego and Philadelphia, Diane is taking new steps to preserve the giant river otter.

Diane, her employees, and a team of volunteers from Youth Challenge International are working right now on construction of a river otter rehab facility. The new facility, which includes shade, fresh water pools, and three separate pens, will allow Diane to hand-raise the many otter pups that are brought to her ranch. Diane has taken in 31 orphaned otters; but such work has required her to house nursing otters in her bathroom and juvenile otters in her storeroom. It also requires her to devote one full-time employee per otter to catch and prepare their daily allotment of fish (the otter's favorite meal, by the way, is piranha!).

Right now there is only one otter at the ranch, whom Diane has named Peter the Great. Diane's recent guests have had such names as Vlad the Impaler, Attila the Hun, Footloose, and Fancy Free (the last two came in as twins). Peter sleeps in the storage room, running down the quarter-mile trail to the river twice each day for a swim. Sometimes Diane or one of the local children will swim with him, playfully wrestling in the water. Peter is about three years old now, and has been with Diane for two-and-a-half years. Most of the orphans return to the river full-time by this age, but Peter shows no interest in leaving the ranch.

Of course, he's not bothered by the mosquitoes or the kaboura flies.

-- Tom Hanscom, Zoological Society of San Diego Applied Conservation


Building the Giant Otter pens
Building Giant Otter pens

Building Otter Rehabilitation Pens at Karanambo Ranch
Rupununi Savannah, Southern Guyana

Report No.2 from the Field

It's never easy, building an animal enclosure at the San Diego Zoo or San Diego Wild Animal Park. But nothing could be as difficult as the giant otter pen here at the Karanambo Ranch. Just ask the young Australian, Canadian and Guyanese volunteers who have been working on the project the past three weeks.

Home Depot and Ace Hardware have yet to catch on in Guyana, so the nearest source of construction materials is in the capital city of Georgetown -- some 200 miles of very bad road away from Karanambo. A truck laden with cement, lumber, fasteners, tools and the eleven volunteer laborers left Georgetown last month on the road south. It required 45 hours of driving to the site.

The Rupununi savannah has suffered unseasonably heavy rains this year, another effect of El Nino. The Rupununi River is currently 15 feet over normal, and threatens to rise higher still. Normally, there are large sand banks along the river near the ranch; this year, the sand is eight feet deep. Diane McTurk was counting on that sand to mix with the cement for the otter compound.

Pen construction
Pen construction

Send in the divers! Local Amerindian boys were recruited to dive with pails to the bottom of the river and bring up the sand, a bucket at a time. The sand was then dumped into a boat, the boat was rowed upriver to the ranch's landing, and the sand was deposited for drying there. Then it was shoveled into the back of an ancient Land Rover and driven the quarter mile to the building site.

Then the Land Rover broke. So the volunteers pushed it to the river, loaded it was sand, and pulled it by a long, thick rope up to the ranch. Several times.

Thirteen hundred bricks, brought by boat from a nearby village, were carried four at a time from the landing to the site (that makes about 160 total miles of walking, 80 of them with a full load of bricks in hand).

Eighteen cubic yards of cement were mixed by hand on the ground, and poured into forms for the pen floor and the walls of the pools.

Beams were hewn from local trees, gates were welded from iron rebar, and the roof is still being made in the traditional method -- palm leaves are drying in the sun, getting ready to be woven into light-weight thatch.

Of course, all of this has been accomplished with no electricity, but plenty of heat, humidity, and biting insects.

Thanks to the hard work of the Youth Challenge International volunteers and Karanambo Ranch staff, the otter pens will be ready to accept their first orphaned guests within a few weeks. All materials and design consultation were donated by the Philadelphia Zoo and the Zoological Society of San Diego.

-- Tom Hanscom, Zoological Society of San Diego Applied Conservation


Kaieteur Falls
Kaieteur Falls

Sustainable Resource Use
Kaieteur Falls, Guyana, South America

Report No.3 from the Field

Malcolm, our guide, coaxed us into lying on our bellies and crawling, slowly, to the edge of the precipice at the top of the world's third-highest waterfall. Looking down, we saw a boiling cauldron at the bottom of a 742-foot cascade. Frightening and exhilarating at once.

Obviously, liability litigation is of far lesser concern in Guyana than it is in the States. There is not so much as a warning sign â€' let alone a guard rail â€' along the top of Kaieteur Falls. Nothing but one's own innate fear of heights to prevent a freefall onto the smooth rocks below.

Kaieteur Falls is just one of countless spectacles to be seen in Guyana's hinterland. Signs, guardrails, snack bars and souvenir stands are not to be found at Orinduik Falls, Shell Beach or the Santa Mission Amerindian village, because hardly anybody goes there. That's all about to change, however, as Guyana pursues a piece of the growing market in ecotourism.

With vast areas of untouched rainforest (some 45,000 square miles in all), flourishing wildlife (including jaguar, giant river otter and manatee), and English as its official language, Guyana is strongly positioned to compete for tourist dollars. But ecotourism is just one of several directions Guyana can go. The world clamors for its timber, and there are vast deposits of aluminum, gold and oil to mined from its interior regions.

Mining and timbering activities threaten to disturb the environment here. Guyana has changed little since the 17th century, when Dutch and English settlers reclaimed the swamps along the northern coast and established agriculture. Even today, 90% of Guyana's 750,000 people live in a thin strip along the coast â€' go south, and there are no roads or communities or other signs of civilization. Extractive industries that remove trees and ores require roads; roads that are punched into the forest bring new settlers; new settlers clear more land for cattle or agriculture. Habitat is destroyed, and plants and animals suffer.

Goodbye: Yvonne Miles and Peter the Great
Goodbye: Yvonne Miles and Peter the Great

Ecotourism differs from these forms of income, in that it can utilize the natural resources of Guyana without depleting them. This is called "sustainable resource use." Other examples of sustainable resource use include solar power generation, butterfly ranching, and the harvest of materials like balata, a type of natural rubber found in the forests of Guyana.

The Amerindians of southern Guyana have long collected balata from forest trees by "tapping" them â€' scoring their trunks and collecting the rubbery sap which oozes from the wound. The tree is injured, but not killed. The balata sap is cooked and carved into a variety of objects, from water containers to small animals. The objects are then sold as ethnic art, to Guyana-bound tourists and collectors worldwide. Income from the balata carvings allows the artists to participate in the economy without resorting to more destructive activities.

Yvonne Miles of the Zoological Society of San Diego has accompanied this expedition to Guyana. Yvonne is interested in supporting the sustainable balata industry by purchasing items from the Guyanese Amerindians, for resale in the shops of the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park. By maintaining a market for these traditional products, the Zoological Society of San Diego can help to encourage gentle use of the environment occupied by such creatures as the giant river otter.

Speaking of which, we left Karanambo Ranch this morning to return to Georgetown. Peter the Great, our giant river otter friend, hauled himself out of the river and loped up the trail to the airstrip, just to say goodbye. It was every bit as impressive as staring down into the drop of Kaieteur Falls.

-- Tom Hanscom, Zoological Society of San Diego Applied Conservation


The Hard Part
Georgetown, Guyana

Report No.4 from the Field

The hard part of conservation work is not the heat, nor mosquitoes, nor razor grass. Not vampire bats nor piranha fish nor difficult transport. The hard part is coming up with a plan, and getting the right people to go along with it.

Conservation of any given resource, living or not, implies that somebody's going to be restricted from using it. That doesn't sit well with the persons who want to do the using. So you resort to politics.

After three days in the bush, we've now entered the more treacherous jungle of Georgetown, seat of government and industry. Here the predators wear business suits and sit, deceptively calm, claws extended but hidden below the conference table, waiting to strike upon their unwitting, tree-hugging adversary at the slightest chance.

Okay, that's too dramatic. Suffice it to say we have to attend a lot of meetings now. Yvonne Miles, Merchandising Manager, has six meetings with potential suppliers of indigenous Guyanese crafts. Our purchase of these crafts, for resale in the shops at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, encourages sustainable resource use and maintenance of the standing forest.

Deirdre Ballou with Lance Bowridge of Georgetown Zoo, at Zoo's Nature School
Deirdre Ballou with Lance Bowridge of Georgetown Zoo, at Zoo's Nature School

Deirdre Ballou, Education Manager, has some materials to deliver to the Nature School at the Georgetown Zoo. She then meets with a group of Guyanese hired to conduct a survey here to determine public attitudes toward wildlife. This information will allow us, and others, to target our messages encouraging support for conservation issues.

Mike Mace, Curator of Birds and Randy Rieches, Curator of Mammals will spend most of the day at the Georgetown Zoo, continuing an animal management consultation begun three years ago. The Zoological Society of San Diego has committed resources and expertise toward redevelopment of the Georgetown Zoo into a "biopark," which will feature and interpret Guyanese native wildlife to visitors. For foreign tourists, the biopark will provide an introduction to the natural resources to be found on an ecotour. For the Guyanese â€' 90% of whom never venture beyond the developed coastal region â€' the biopark will provide an understanding and appreciation (and sense of responsibility) for the plants and animals that live in Guyana's wilderness.

Randy Rieches feeding manatee, next to new interpretive sign
Randy Rieches feeding manatee, next to new interpretive sign

In between these, we all share meetings with the Guyanese Minister of Environment, the staff of Conservation International Guyana, the operator of Guyana's largest ecotour company, and probably a few others. Our meeting with the President of Guyana was bumped when the Vice Premier of China scheduled a last-minute visit (hard to compete with). It's important to get in as many meetings as possible while we're here â€' phone calls and e-mails to this country are near impossible, and one is rarely "just in the neighborhood."

These meetings, and ventures into the bush, have provided us a fascinating insight into the front lines of wildlife conservation. We've flown above the rain forest of Guyana on a clear morning and seen nothing but trees for 30 miles in all directions. We've gotten a taste for why the remote resources of Guyana have withstood development pressures until now (they're called kaboura flies, which also taught us what it's like to be lower in the food chain). We've met with people anxious to profit from their rightful inheritance, the forest. We've met with others, equally anxious to leave an intact natural inheritance to their children. We've enjoyed the tireless help of young, foreign volunteers who will probably never return to Guyana â€' they just wanted to do a good thing in an exotic spot. And we've developed a pretty decent plan, to help conserve Guyana's wilderness.

With the partnerships we've begun, the genuine interest of the Guyanese people in this effort, and the support of patrons and organizations back home, the Guyana project will continue to be a model of multi-disciplinary conservation work. To date, it has employed the varied expertise of Education, Mammals, Birds, Veterinary Services, Architecture, Public Relations, Merchandising, and Applied Conservation. Enough people to fill any good-size meeting.

-- Tom Hanscom, Zoological Society of San Diego Applied Conservation

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