Biodiversity bonanza: Guyana’s Rupununi

The Rupununi savanna covers a vast region of Guyana, but its rich flora and fauna are still little known to scientists. As Burton Lim explains, a recent biodiversity survey by the World Wildlife Fund sought to make this natural bounty known to the world

The Rupununi is a landscape of rolling savanna crossed by rivers. Photograph by Burton LimThe WWF biodiversity survey recorded the first instance of the Orinoco sword-nosed bat in Guyana. Photograph by Burton Lim

Guyana is one of the few places on earth where large tracts of natural habitat are still intact. And the biggest Caricom nation is resisting the urge to over-develop this sparsely inhabited paradise, by promoting a brand of eco-tourism that highlights nature and the traditional indigenous lifestyle still found in the remote interior.

More famous for its pristine rainforest, interconnecting with the Amazon, Guyana is also home to a vast expanse of tropical savanna in its southwest corner, on the frontier with Brazil. The Rupununi grasslands are home to scattered indigenous villages, cattle ranches, and a rich array of fauna and flora still little known to science.

To document and assess this national treasure, in October and November 2013 the World Wildlife Fund in Guyana mounted the most comprehensive biological expedition ever to the south Rupununi. A multinational biodiversity assessment team with more than fifty scientists, students, local coordinators, and field assistants spent over two weeks studying not only plants and animals, but also the quality of the water supply and the relevance of these natural resources to the community and ecosystem — and hoping to find some new biological discoveries.

This information will be important to help “guide informed decision-making about the sustainable use, management, and conservation of the Rupununi,” says Dr Leeanne Alonso, scientific team leader from Global Wildlife Conservation in Austin, Texas. A main impetus for the project was the lack of biological study in the area, and “no savanna was part of the national protected areas system,” explains Aiesha Williams, biodiversity officer with WWF-Guianas in Georgetown.

The WWF assembled a makeshift global village in the midst of the south Rupununi’s grassland-rainforest mosaic. Scientists from North America and Europe worked alongside local biologists, with the assistance of students from the University of Guyana and indigenous Wapishana with a keen interest and knowledge of nature in their own backyard.

The hum and diversity of activity was nearly 24/7. Typically first to rise were the ornithologists, who needed to get a head start on the birds that started chirping before the crack of dawn. But the clacking of pots could be heard too in the darkness of the early morning, as the cooks prepared breakfast for the botanists. They wanted to sample their plots in the open savanna before “the sun got too hot to work,” says Edwin Pos, plant researcher from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

The fish, aquatic insect, and water quality teams could usually afford a more reasonable start to the day, because of the slight cooling effects from their river sampling. And the ant and large mammal specialists had a more flexible schedule to set their traps or search for their organisms in different habitats depending on the time of day.

The reptile, amphibian, and small mammal experts — of which I was one — were the last to roll out of camp. But we were active during both the day and night, studying our creatures of interest. For the small mammal team, it meant checking the rat traps in the morning and the bat nets at night, which rarely allowed us to slip into our hammocks before midnight.

“I knew that birds and bees pollinated flowers, but I didn’t know that bats also do it,” says Abraham Ignace from Schulinab village, who was seconded as my local small mammal field assistant. He farms in the forested Kanuku Mountains, which dominates the horizon near his home in the grasslands. More recently, his attention has turned to wildlife-related activities such as participating in studies on the bird fauna. “Protecting the habitat is what conservation is all about,” he says.

Chetwynd Osborne is in the fourth year of the biology programme at the University of Guyana, with a minor in chemistry, and was selected as my student small mammal assistant. “I like working in the lab,” he says, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience the Rupununi. During the expedition a bat he untangled from the net turned out to be the first documented instance of the Orinoco sword-nosed bat in Guyana — previously known only from the savannas of Venezuela and Colombia.

Although this new country record was the highlight for the less species-rich but better-studied mammals, the most notable discoveries were found in other groups — including aquatic beetles, which are also good bioindicators of water quality. “At least three genera and ten species are new to science,” says Dr Andrew Short, assistant professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The community workshops held during the biodiversity assessments were also informative, in that they “revealed to the local residents the value of their resources, the rate at which these resources were being depleted, and the necessity to take immediate steps in managing these resources,” states the preliminary report of the WWF expedition. These natural resources include “high diversity of species living in the wide range of habitat types in the area.”

“Awareness of the cultural importance of wildlife and its potential for tourism and alternative income is growing in our villages among our younger generation,” explained Nicholas Fredericks, our logistics coordinator from Schulinab, in an outline plan drafted in 2012 by the indigenous peoples of the South Rupununi.

Community involvement in the management of natural resources not only helps in the continuation of the traditional Amerindian way of life in the face of globalisation, but provides livelihoods based on the conservation of biodiversity. This also contributes to an authentic eco-tourism experience for visitors: local guides grew up in this environment, and are eager to know more about sustainable development associated with outdoor activities such as bird-watching, fishing, and wildlife-spotting of large animals, which can range from jaguars to giant anteaters, if you’re lucky.

Abraham Ignace participated in the WWF expedition to “gain a little knowledge about everything here.” He isn’t the only one who wants to experience and learn more about the Rupununi. Biologists, conservationists, policy-makers, and tourists are also discovering this diverse off-the-beaten-path alternative paradise.