Earlier this year, prior to Panthera’s signing of an MOU with the Guyana government, several of our scientists embarked on a ten-day exploratory expedition of Guyana’s Rewa River to assess the state of biodiversity and threats facing this watershed. This is the first post by Panthera’s Vice President, Dr. George Schaller, of the Guyana Jungle Journey blog series.
The dark wall of rainforest hems in the Rewa River in southern Guyana as our team ascends in two small boats. The forest is surprisingly silent. An occasional pair of blue and yellow macaws passes, screeching overhead, and the calls of black curassows boom from the shadowed depth. Only red howler monkeys are a noisy presence, their communal howls and roars sounding like an approaching storm in the canopy.
We are a team of nine on a ten-day exploratory expedition of Guyana’s Rewa River to assess the biodiversity and threats facing this watershed. The group includes Dr. Evi Paemaelere, Panthera’s jaguar scientist carrying out a jaguar conservation study in Guyana’s Rupununi savanna; Dr. Esteban Payan, Guyana project leader and Panthera’s Northern South America Jaguar Program Regional Director; myself, visiting the country for the first time; along with six Amerindian guides.
Our eyes focus on the river banks, hoping to spot wildlife—a capybara scrambling away, a black caiman lying motionless like a floating log, a giant otter gliding through the water. Usually the Amerindians, with names like Hilary and Gordon in this former British colony, are the first to catch a glimpse of some animal, once a jaguar and a tapir.
Despite our hopes, we actually see little wildlife. Birds flit through the undergrowth - fleeting visions that are gone before I can raise my binoculars – but the anhingas, white-necked herons, and tiger herons perched on snags waiting for fish, offer good views.
Dr. Schaller examines jaguar tracks on a sandbank of the Rewa River - Guyana, 2013
At intervals, we stop at a sand bar to search for tracks, and occasionally find pugmarks indicating that jaguars do, in fact, patrol the beaches of the Rewa in search of a meal. At night, two species of river turtles, genus Podocnemis, lumber onto the sandbars, shovel a hole in which to lay their eggs, and carefully cover the site. Also near the water’s edge, gladiator tree frogs dig small ponds, wall them with a low sand mound, and then deposit a gelatinous mass of eggs. To become aware of the marvelous adaptations of such small creatures provides a special pleasure on a jungle journey. However, Dr. Payan warns, “Don’t go barefoot into the water at these sandy places. Sting rays lie buried in the sand. Their sting is horribly painful.” I then prefer wet shoes.
Our lengthy foot transects through the forest again provide few sightings of animals, except ticks, black flies and an occasional yellow-footed tortoise, giant armadillo burrow, and agouti. Spider, white-faced capuchin and other monkeys offer the best views, but at the expense of a sore neck from peering up into the canopy. Rain forest animals are usually this cryptic, and one has to search for them quietly and with patience.
A ‘forest jaguar’ spotted on the banks of Guyana’s Rewa River.
Finally, our team makes a fleeting but significant sighting of the notoriously elusive ‘forest jaguar’, indicating potentially healthy riparian forests bordering the Rewa River.
Continuing upriver, we carry our gear and boats around two waterfalls, where ancient petroglyphs adorn the smooth river boulders. Whenever we camp, the Amerindians immediately go fishing, bringing back pacu, black piranha, and tiger cat fish, the last of which extends up to three feet long. But the only Amerindians in this part of Guyana is a small group of Wai-Wai along the Brazilian border.
A male jaguar on Karanambu Ranch in Guyana’s Rupununi savanna. This jaguar was observed swimming across the Rupununi River on multiple occasions. 2011.
After travelling for days in uninhabited forest, we arrive back at the mouth of the Rewa River, exhilarated by our remote jungle experience. Rewa village is located here, and like several other Amerindian tribes, the community has erected a tourist lodge consisting of a main building and several comfortable thatched huts.
Most tourists come to observe birds, and some 643 species have been recorded in the 83,000 square miles of Guyana so far. But, of course, visitors hope to see a jaguar, the national animal, during their jungle visit as well. Importantly, all eco-tourism profits go back to the community, helping to promote the conservation of Guyana’s wildlife and wild places.
Drs. Schaller and Payan take field notes in the gallery forests bordering the Rewa river.
Upon returning to Georgetown, near which most of the country’s 750,000 people live, we are met by Panthera’s CEO, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, and Jaguar Program Executive Director, Dr. Howard Quigley. Here, we visit with officials from Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, and are greatly impressed by their detailed knowledge of the country and determination to protect its environment, 75% of which still consists of forest. With good planning, the country has and can continue to achieve a sustainable balance between economic development, such as mining, natural resource management, and conservation - protecting the country’s natural heritage for the long-term benefit of its plants, animals, and people.
Here, Panthera joins the government of Guyana in signing the country’s first official jaguar-focused conservation agreement, establishing a commitment to collaborate on research and conservation initiatives protecting the jaguar and its habitat. It is an important occasion, because for once one is not fighting on behalf of the last of a species or patch of forest, but can help a country toward a great and harmonious future. I savor my visit to Guyana, and hope that many others will also make that journey.