>citizen science


The Treasure of Iwokrama

In a forgotten corner of South America, harpy eagles still fly and jaguars still roam-- and the native Makushi Indians are working with scientists to keep it that way.

by scott weidensaul
photography by
daniel borris


With an exuberant whoop, a half-dozen kids kicked off their plastic sandals and raced up to an enormous old kapok tree, buttress roots protruding from its massive trunk like rocket fins and its branches dripping with thick lianas that corkscrewed to the ground. They scrambled into the vines hand over hand without slowing much, bare feet flying, until they perched 10 or 15 feet above the ground, grinning back with delight at us earthbound adults.

Gary Sway clung higher than the rest and also wore the biggest smile. At 17, he had recently returned to his home village of Surama in Guyana, after two years of working in a bakery in Brazil--a common story in the Makushi Indian settlements in the interior of this small South American country, where the border is porous and employment opportunities are few. But that may be changing, thanks to a unique forest reserve near the village and some help from the Audubon Society. And Gary's role as leader of the Surama Junior Wildlife Club places him and his young companions in an unusual position to help make the transition.

Surama, a village of about 250 people, sits in a grassy valley between low hills in western Guyana. Just to the north is Iwokrama, a vast reserve set aside by the Guyanese government in 1989 as a demonstration project for sustainable, ecologically sensitive development--1,400 square miles of virtually untouched rainforest, rivers, and rugged mountains harboring one of the finest assemblages of tropical wildlife in the Americas. Iwokrama also holds a promise--an unprecedented partnership among scientists, land managers, and indigenous communities, working to preserve its wilderness character while using some of its resources to the benefit of Amerindians and the country as a whole. "The importance of this goes far beyond Iwokrama," says David Cassells, who until last summer was the director of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development, which oversees the reserve. "It's a means of changing the way governments around the world view the management of rainforest resources."

Superlatives about Iwokrama flow almost as smoothly as the vast, rapids-strewn Essequibo River, which frames part of the reserve. This may be the very best place in the world to see a wild jaguar or a free-flying harpy eagle, to name just two of the local glamour species. The large, slow, tasty, or valuable animals that have been hunted out of existence elsewhere in South America remain common here, buffered by Iwokrama's isolation, its extremely low human population (some 3,500 people), and the paucity of guns in rural Guyana.

I traveled to Iwokrama with two Audubon staffers who know it well--Sally Conyne, director of citizen science, and Matthew McKown, who manages several citizen science projects. Sally has been coming to Iwokrama regularly for more than six years, initially to do biodiversity surveys for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and then to develop education programs in the 13 local Amerindian villages for Audubon. Traveling with her and Matt first to Surama and later to the main research station on the Essequibo, I saw firsthand the riches that Iwokrama offers--courting black-and-white hawk-eagles soaring high over the forest, a pair of curious giant otters in an oxbow lake snorkeling up for a view of us, flocks of gray-winged trumpeters and black curassows.

One night, under the wan light of a half-moon, we drifted silently down the river in an old wooden boat with Daniel Allicock, a 42-year-old Makushi from Surama whose family has been instrumental in protecting and managing the reserve. The soft chatter of the fast-flowing water rose to a growl in places, as Daniel guided the skiff through low, silver-splashed rapids. Troops of howler monkeys bellowed in the distance, a breathy, full-throated roar that carried for miles in the cool, still air.

We played a spotlight over the rocky islands and wooded margins of the Essequibo, looking for the bright red-orange reflection of a black caiman's eyes; this part of Guyana has some of the healthiest populations of these crocodilians in South America, and the animals have been known to attack and kill incautious boaters and swimmers. When Daniel spotted an especially large caiman in a section of flooded trees, we motored closer, silent and tense.

As we approached, the immense reptile sank a few feet under the dark water, its eyes still glowing eerily in the beam. The sharp smell of dead meat caught in our noses, and we realized the caiman had been guarding its kill--a 20-foot anaconda, tangled in the saplings and partially eaten. "That's funny," Daniel said quietly. "Usually it's the other way around--the snake eats the caiman."

To properly manage a reserve like Iwokrama, you have to understand who eats whom--how the intricate web of a tropical ecosystem ties together. "In my view, you can't always be sending out biologists--it's not cost-effective," says Graham Watkins, senior wildlife biologist for the Iwokrama International Centre. "Besides, it makes sense to build upon the local people's knowledge base, to collaborate with them." By combining the traditional wisdom of the Makushi, Wapishana, and other local tribes with modern scientific techniques, the center is safeguarding both the wildlife of the forest and a way of life still largely dependent on subsistence fishing and hunting.

One way to gather information quickly is to train the Makushi to do their own research, and then let them pursue questions of particular concern to their own villages. Like Allicock, many of the adults have learned the basics of field study and data collection through their years of working side by side with scientists. Now reserve managers are turning to the younger generation, too. In the past two years junior wildlife clubs have been started in all 13 villages, and they now have more than 320 members--roughly 10 percent of the local population--ranging in age from 6 to 18.

So far, Watkins says, the focus has been on training club members in field-research techniques, like using mist nets to safely catch birds, deploying sound recording equipment, and setting automatic camera traps that photograph passing mammals like tapirs and jaguars. Some club members, like those in the Surama club, have gone so far as to build and maintain nature trails for their neighbors and for tourists. Club members are also encouraged to turn their curiosity toward aspects of their neighborhood that especially interest them, like the declining savanna deer populations or the seasonal movements of blue-and-yellow macaws, which could lead to more birding tourism.

The Audubon Society has been promoting such "citizen science" projects since the introduction of the Christmas Bird Count, more than a century ago. "Our goal is to engage people, millions of them, in conservation through personal action," says Frank Gill, Audubon's director of science. The organization is working with the Iwokrama staff and the Makushi wildlife clubs to create bird-monitoring programs in all the villages, eventually linking them through BirdSource, a massive online database maintained by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The wildlife clubs will be able to share techniques, questions, and results with one another and with the world, including kids doing similar monitoring in such far-flung places as East Los Angeles and Brooklyn, national parks, and rural communities in the United States.

Because the youngsters will be doing real science, with real value, the information they get will be immediately useful--not only to scientists like Watkins but to the Makushi themselves. One day I sat in on a meeting of the North Rupununi District Development Board, made up of elected representatives from the indigenous communities. More than 40 men and women sat in a large, open-air room in the village of Annai, debating issues like how to set sustainable catch levels for arapaima, an enormous fish that often exceeds six or seven feet in length. Overfishing--much of it by outsiders--has badly depleted arapaima populations in and around Iwokrama, and some of the board's members, including chairman William Andries of the village of Toka, argued that police and enforcement agents from the Guyana Environmental Protection Agency should be brought in. Others, like Daniel Allicock's father, Fred--himself a former hunter and trapper who has become one of the reserve's strongest proponents--urged a less confrontational approach, noting that some of the culprits were local Makushi.

"When I was a trapper, we always knew where the police were and how to avoid them," he said. "We have to convince the fishermen to cooperate, to see that it's in their best interest." Everyone agreed that the first step was getting good information on how arapaima are faring in different areas--data that will be collected in part by wildlife club members, like Gary Sway, who were listening quietly from the periphery of the meeting room.

One day Gary and the wildlife club led Sally, Matt, and me on a hike up Surama Mountain, showing off their climbing skills in that vine-draped kapok tree and pointing out dozens of things we would otherwise have missed--small edible fruits that tasted like bananas; a hummingbird dancing in a shaft of sunlight; a passionflower butterfly, striped yellow and black like a tiger, laying its eggs.

At first the trail rose gently through lush rainforest, but eventually it became an almost vertical scramble, and we had to use handholds chopped out of the soil. We finally inched along the face of a sheer cliff to an overlook. But the view was worth the effort; we looked down on the bowl-shaped valley in which Surama sat, with the much more rugged Iwokrama Mountains just to the north. A pair of scarlet macaws flew past, and one of the girls from the club spotted a spider monkey hanging in a tree below us, inky black, with a bright red face and a mop of shaggy, Beatles-length hair through which it kept dragging a hand, like a distracted teenager. Seeing the monkey led several of the younger club members into a lively discussion of their favorite animals--some favored monkeys or giant otters, but Leon Bento, 12, cast his lot with tapirs. That got a sour look from his friend, 11-year-old Arnaldo Sway: "I like jaguars--they're big and strong."

Tagging along was Daniel Allicock's 17-year-old daughter, Caroline, a former club member and now a community environmental worker in Surama. She was trained by the Iwokrama International Centre to serve as a link among the scientists, the district development board, and the village. She also represents the newest generation of Makushi, steeped in tradition but tasting the outside world--its benefits and its lure--through computers, education, and travel beyond the villages.

Four generations of the Allicock family are intertwined with Iwokrama, starting with the 102-year-old matriarch, Elemina, who as a girl experienced the last days of tribal warfare and wore the traditional fringed skirt of a Makushi woman. Elemina's son-in-law Fred, 68, is a former jaguar hunter and otter trapper who, in the late 1960s, became alarmed by the destruction of wildlife by both local people and outsiders from Brazil. The pressure became so severe that the black caiman, giant otter, and several other animals became rare, and one beautiful bird, the sun parakeet, was trapped to local extinction for the pet trade. Soon the Allicocks were working with the police to curb poaching. Most of the depleted species have since re-bounded strongly.

Today Fred, a powerfully built man with a clipped gray moustache, is a respected leader in the community. In 1991, when he was serving as regional vice-chairman, the government asked him to help delineate the boundaries of the newly designated Iwokrama preserve. Over the next several years he surveyed much of the million-acre preserve with his sons Daniel, Bradford, and Sidney. It was grueling, often dangerous, labor; in just one year Daniel came down with malarial infections 17 times, and Fred 24 times. They also built the research station, where visiting scientists could work. When the only road into the preserve was in such bad shape that supplies couldn't reach camp, the Allicocks fed the researchers with produce from their own gardens. "We really put ourselves out," Fred says, "because we could see it would be beneficial for Guyana and for the world."

Iwokrama is unique beyond its biological richness; it is the only place in the world where a research and development center has direct responsibility for managing an enormous tropical forest--and where the focus is on all ecosystem values, not just traditional, timber-based forestry. Some of the sustainable industries being considered are the limited capture of tropical aquarium fish and the collection of crabwood-nut oil, a medicinal product. But the biggest hopes are pinned to ecotourism.

"If everything goes right, I can see ecotourism generating $40 million or $50 million a year in Guyana within 10 years," Cassells says. "In global terms, that's small beer, but on a local scale, it's as much as the timber industry brings into the country, so it has the potential to be extremely important to Guyana."

The model that's evolving in Iwokrama--ecologically sensitive management by young wildlife clubbers and village elders, oversight by locally elected representatives and international scientists--is unlike anything else being tried in the tropics. "This is a paradigm shift from an elite, state-based system of management to one driven by the community's concerns and needs," Watkins says --a consensus-based approach that is, ironically, similar to what the Makushi used in pre-European days. "It's messy, it seems to take forever, and it's incredibly complex. I can't grasp all the complexities of the way they go about it--but it works."

The morning after our hike with the wildlife club, Daniel Allicock led us into Iwokrama's southern forest, about an hour by rough road from Surama. Our stroll was soon interrupted by a herd of white-lipped peccaries, 75-pound wild pigs with a reputation for short fuses and nasty tempers. The pigs, bristling like bottle brushes, stopped as they caught our scent, clashing their yellowish tusks with a sound like bursts of machine-gun fire before bolting. We waited until they were safely gone, then resumed our hike along a thin trail that rose into the hills, weaving among palms and fallen tree trunks, eventually leading to a jumble of immense, house-size boulders draped with vines and hemmed in by tall, buttress-rooted trees.

Among the rocks were a sequence of shallow caves, where bats fluttered nervously around our heads in the dim light. On a flat rock shelf lay an ancient peccary jaw and several curved pieces of brown pottery, which Daniel had found on previous visits; once, more than a century ago, the Makushi hid from warring tribes in these hills, and this was one of their redoubts.

"Come on, let me show you where they kept a lookout," he said, replacing the stained jawbone and leading me outside. He'd rebuilt a series of crude ladders made of saplings, securely tied with vines to the sheer rock face, which led 60 feet up to the summit of the natural tower. We stood in brilliant sunshine and a cooling breeze, with flocks of orange-winged parrots chattering endlessly in the valley below, and I imagined Elemina's parents sitting here, blowguns and bows in hand, watching for signs of approaching Carib warriors.

Once the Spanish sought El Dorado in the Guianan Shield, but today the lure is gold of a different kind. Daniel led us back to the caves, where a mud nest was plastered to the wall of one rock shelter and a dumpy, rust-colored bird flew off as we approached. Soon her mate flew in to investigate--a male Guianan cock-of-the-rock, fluorescent orange with black wings and a bizarre round crest running down the middle of its head like a slice of tangerine, and cascades of threadlike, apricot-colored feathers shimmering over its back. It was perhaps the most breathtaking bird I've ever seen, a sight to dazzle even the most jaded traveler--and just one of many treasures that Iwokrama holds in trust for Guyana, and the future.


Scott Weidensaul has written more than two dozen books on natural history, including Living on the Wind, about migratory birds, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2000. He lives near Pennsylvania's Kittatinny Ridge, where he bands hawks and owls each autumn.


© 2002  NASI

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What You
Can Do

Although ecotourism has been slow to develop in Guyana, the country's extraordinarily rich wildlife draws growing numbers of birders and adventure travelers each year. Tourist infrastructure is fairly limited, though, and luxury lodges are still rare--though the fact that Guyana is an English-speaking country is a major attraction for many North Americans. Direct flights to Georgetown, the capital, originate from Miami and New York; domestic carriers serve Annai, which is an hour by truck from Surama and the southern edge of the Iwokrama preserve.

The Iwokrama International Centre for Rain Forest Conservation and Development offers a variety of tour options, from overnight stays in the field station to weeklong expeditions that include visits by boat to remote tent camps. A new canopy walkway is expected to be completed by spring 2002. The main field station's accommodations are comfortable but rustic: cabins with flush toilets and showers. Visitors can also stay in the four-room guest house at Surama--enjoying not only the abundant wildlife but the rhythms of an Amerindian community--or at Rock View Lodge, a plusher ecotour facility in Annai, on the western savanna. For more information, visit www.iwokrama.org; write to 67 Bel Air, Georgetown, Guyana SA; or call 011-592-2-51504.