The Art/Science of Zoological Medicine

Mountain GorillasArt is more than the materials used to make it, just as science is more than facts. In both, the creative process is vital.

In my field, zoological medicine, anything is possible: glue-on shoes for a rhino with sore feet, an ultrasound for a gravid komodo dragon or a silica gel shake-and-bake treatment for a mite-infested cockroach. With 1.3 million species and counting, I learn something new each day. I look things up often, talk to colleagues and extrapolate. A tiger is cat-like, most frogs are similar, seed-eating birds differ from fruit-eating ones.

Vets who work with wild animals also spend as much, if not more, time observing their patients than they do actually examining them. I love this part of my job because it requires a combination of imagination and critical thinking.

From a distance, using binoculars, I watch a female mountain gorilla limp along. I imagine the explanations: sprain, strain, fracture, wound, snare. From her expression, she is in pain. I interpret her clinical signs by comparing them in my mind to other patients. I ask the trackers what they think. If it’s a snare, she could lose a limb or even her life. There could be a piece of wire or rope encircling her leg, buried beneath her thick black hair.

Wild mountain gorillas are so rare that they have their own veterinary team, but we intervene only when humans cause the injury or illness. If she improves without treatment over the next few days, the diagnosis is less likely to be a snare. Medicine, like art, is iterative.

Sadly, my profession is faced with a much bigger challenge than a limping gorilla: Our patients are disappearing. The current rate of species extinction is at least one-thousand times higher than ever before. We are in the sixth mass extinction, and humans are driving the change.

Solutions to biodiversity loss require the informed actions of many. Unfortunately, only one-third of Americans are science literate, meaning they are capable of making a decision based on scientific information.

Teaching biology at the Rhode Island School of Design, I work with students interested in the many ways humans interact with animals. I hope to inspire future artists and designers to increase their science literacy—and then use their work to help others. By exploring new ways to stir emotions, raise awareness and stimulate debate, we have an opportunity to change the way science is communicated. The animal kingdom depends on it.

Studying biodiversity at Karanambu

Jabiru Stork

Jabiru stork, Jabiru mycteria, near Karanambu, Guyana, South America

Karanambu’s 100 square miles are a wildlife refuge, of sorts, especially for the “giants”: otters, jaguars, anteaters, river turtles, and water lilies, among others. Officially, though, it is a tract of land once leased to the McTurk family for the business of cattle ranching.

Soon, we hope, the Lodge will have a new land lease for ecotourism. The success of the business side of Karanambu will depend, more than ever, on the activities of its non-profit side, the Trust. For the Lodge to be truly “eco”, we need to know as much as we can about Karanambu’s flora and fauna, as well its cultural history. Only then can we work with others to protect the “land of the giants” even as it is developed, and ensure visitors have an amazing adventure.

As Baba Dioum famously said, “We will protect only what we love, love only what we understand, and understand only what we are taught.

After an intense — and successful — effort by the Trust in 2011 to raise the funds needed to accommodate visiting researchers and students, we are now in a better position to host visitors.  The following photos with captions show the Trust in action.

animal camera trap

The Trust’s newly appointed part time coordinator, Gerry Pereira, has continued to set camera traps at Karanambu, following Evi’s work with jaguars. This is a camera trap image of a savanna fox (Cerdocyon thous), also known as a crab-eating fox.

animal camera trap

This camera trap image is of a tayra (Eira Barbara) with a mango in its mouth.


Shedd Aquarium reearch team

Also in last year, a team from the Shedd Aquarium made two visits to Karanambu, launching a survey of aquatic biodiversity. We hope this work will continue.

cology Course Karanambu Trust

In January 2012, I co-taught Karanambu’s first ever college-level field ecology course with my friend and colleague, Dr. Godfrey Bourne — also a Trustee. Here is a group photo of the students.

This summer, Godfrey returned to Karanambu to start a research project of his own: he is interested in the birdsong of the Greater Kiskadee, (Pitangus sulphuratus), also known as the neotropical tyrant flycatcher.  Born in Guyana, Godfrey is a field ecologist and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Evolutionary and Tropical Biology, University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Greater Kiskadee

The Greater Kiskadee, a species of tyrant flycatcher, is found throughout Guyana in such diverse habitats as cities, towns, villages, gallery forest, lakes, ponds, and the savannah. These omnivorous birds are known to eat fruit, eggs, insects and small fish.

The greater kiskadee is common in Guyana—it is also a very loud bird. Their morning calls often wake me up on the days I stay in Georgetown. Like Godfrey, I have seen and heard them everywhere I have visited in Guyana. But he noticed something much more subtle. The kiskadee’s mating call seems to vary from one location to the next. In some areas, these differences may even be enough to designate new subspecies or species. So Godfrey’s study at Karanambu is designed to look for evidence of micro-geographic variation and speciation.

Godfrey lives in the US and can visit Karanambu only intermittently, but his study will require data collected over time. His plan is to hire local field assistants. So when he visited in June, he held a training session for potential assistants—all of whom had taken our January field course. An anonymous donor to the Trust funded the cost of this weeklong training session. On behalf of everyone at Karanambu, Godfrey, and myself, thank you!

iskadee student recording team

Dr. Godfrey Bourne with trainees Martin Roberts, Susan George, Shamir Khan, and Oswin Andries recording kiskadees from a boat at Buffalo Pond, an oxbow lake just off the Rupununi River.

Taking part in the kiskadee song recording training session from nearby villages were Susan George from Katoka, Shamir Khan from Yupukari, Martin Roberts from Kwaimatta, Oswin Andries from Yupukari, and Gerard Pereira from Karanambu.

dr Godfrey w students

Dr. Godfrey Bourne with the trainees teaching them how to analyze the kiskadee recordings using the computer program Raven Lite. This program allows researchers to study the kiskadee vocalizations in dept and look at such properties as length of call, frequency, harmonics, pulse rate etc.


We hope to have the funding in place soon to launch Godfrey’s field research – which includes providing a stipend and transportation costs for field assistants, making data collection throughout the year possible, and creating jobs at the same time.

Finally—and I am especially excited about this—Godfrey and I will be back at Karanambu in January 2013 to teach the second ever Karanambu field ecology course: Biodiversity in the Land of the Makushis. See this link for two PDF files about the program.  For those interested, please email Dr. Bourne or myself directly.

University Flyer-Biodiversity in the Land of the Makushis WI 13 (.pdf)


Blogging again

A year has passed with no sign of Bel or Phillip at Karanambu. Diane has given up all hope of seeing them again. Even so, they could be alive and well. We have no way of knowing.

Nor have any new orphans appeared at the ranch. We hope this is a sign that Karanambu’s conservation message has taken hold: giant otters are best left in the wild.

Bel and Phillip Giant Otter Orphans

Orphaned giant otter cubs Bel and Phillip during their rehabilitation at Karanambu.

My last blog post for Saving Otters was also over a year ago. My apologies!  The reason has nothing to do with Karanambu where there has been plenty of activity. It has to do with a writing project that turned out to be all consuming: a kid’s animal encyclopedia for National Geographic.

Between my teaching, vet work and the encyclopedia, there was simply no time to blog. But now that the book is finished, my plan is to write regularly for Adventures in Climate Change. Some of my posts will be catch-up. Others will be current. All will be about Karanambu, where wildlife conservation is combined with eco-tourism.

Giant anterater

Wild giant anteaters are regularly found at Karanambu.

What began as an effort to save otters has expanded to research, conservation, and sustainable development of the wetlands and savanna surrounding Karanambu. The future of the giant otter is connected to that of the other wildlife in the region, as well as its people and their domestic animals. As the climate changes, so will these interactions.

Karanambu Course

Karanambu Trust board member and lead scientist Dr. Godfrey Bourne leading Karanambu’s first ever ecology course (January 2012.)

So why is it we have no idea about the fate of Bel and Philip? The answer is because it is very hard to track a wild giant otter.

Wild giant otters

While out on the river or in a pond, giant otters surface only briefly—either to take a deep breath or eat a freshly caught meal.

To answer the obvious question, yes, we did consider using radio-tracking devices. But this would have been far too invasive–as well as problematic. Diane started raising orphaned and injured giant otters to help them. To put them back in the wild. To reverse the damage done to them by people who took them out of their holts and away from their parents, or shot arrows at them. My goal in helping her has been the same — to do no harm.

To attach a transmitter to an otter means either implanting the device surgically, or attaching it to a harness. Both have been shown to change the behavior of the animal, and lead to early death. Harnesses work well enough for birds, and tracking collars are excellent for deer, bears, jaguars and wolves. But any sort of collar or harness is dangerous for an animal like an otter that moves through dense bush, and has a torpedo shaped body. The giants scramble through bush, roll on sandbanks and swim through flooded forests. They also create their holts by digging the dirt out from under a network of tree roots.

Wild giant otters

Giant otters are heard more often than seen—they often hide among the vegetation to eat.

There are a few other options. Glue-on transmitters, for example, work well for dolphins and have been tried in smaller river otters, but they don’t stay on very long. Intestinal transmitters can work — if you can get the animal to eat the device. But they tend to pass through very quickly, sometimes within hours. The whole idea of tracking the animal is to find out where it goes over time.

Wild giant otters

Giant otters porpoise in and out of the water as they fish.

To date, until there is some new technology, the only way to track a wild otter is to anesthetize it and surgically implant a transmitter. Anesthesia risks aside (my background includes several research studies on otter anesthesia), there are several obstacles with these devices. The smallest ones can be placed just under the skin, but they have a limited battery life. The more effective transmitters are larger, because they have bigger batteries, and must be placed in the abdominal cavity, a surgical procedure that is best performed in a sterile environment. Though this approach has been used to track river otters, the transmitter can cause damage to the internal organs. It works better in sea otters because of their large size.

Even the intra-abdominal devices have a limited battery life of months to a year. When they run out, either the study is over, or the battery or transmitter needs to be replaced. To do so means capturing the animal. While this is possible with smaller otters like the American river otter — using a live box trap — and with sea otters — which are spotted with a scope and netted in the open ocean — it has never been attempted with giant otters. Nor is it feasible, in my opinion. It took several months to target train Buddy. And even tiny cubs used to being hand-fed fish are difficult to lure into a carrier.

Wild giant otters

When alerted to potential harm, a giant otter will raise its head out of the water periscope-like, making it possible to see its unique throat patch.

To add to the challenge, even with the transmitter implanted in a giant otter, tracking it along the Rupununi River would be next to impossible. The sea otter transmitters work because salt water is a better conductor of the radio signal than fresh water, the animals are often floating on the surface, and there are no bushy trees in the way.

So far, the only transmitter shown to work well for river otters in a riparian ecosystem is an external one attached by a harness — designed to break easily if caught in bushes. The transmitter uses GPS data and works like a cell phone. The data is better, more continuous, than with the intra-abdominal transmitters. The problem is the harnesses are not meant to stay on long. They fall off within a few days.

Even if it were possible to attach such a transmitter to a giant otter, the information gained would not be enough to answer our questions: where do the orphans go and what is their social behavior, months to years after leaving Karanambu.

Wild giant otters

Photographing wild otters is a challenge because of their quick moves—and preference for swimming among the vegetation.

New technology may one day make it possible to know the fate of an orphaned giant otter. But even knowing the outcome, our approach to their rehabilitation would not change.  As Diane has done with every otter before, we would return them to the river and give them a chance to live freely on the river.

For more about Karanambu, check out our NEW website, thanks to Lori and Larry of Biograph II Productions!


Looking for Otters

Editor’s Note: Lucy writes this blog from Karanambu Trust and Ecolodge located in Guyana. Lucy and others are helping to protect this biodiverse area. For more about Karanambu visit Karanambu Trust and Lodge.

1-Otter pair in pond,<br /> Karanambu Jan 1, 2013 8-09 AM

Two wild giant otters, barely visible along the far edge of a fishing in a pond,
Karanambu. January 1, 2013.


I started the new year looking for otters in one of my favorite places: the honey ponds at Karanambu.

I left the Lodge as soon as there was enough light, walking quickly. I wanted to get into position before the otters arrived. I was sure they would be there. I couldn’t remember a January when I hadn’t seen them.

As I approached the pond, a flock of pale vented pigeons burst out of the trees, startling me. Even when I know these birds are there they make me jump! Next I heard a large something, probably a black caiman, make a big splash in the water.

I walked quietly around to the side of the pond where I usually see otters, and found a place to stand with a clear view, right next to a clump of trees. I was ready to duck into the bushes, even leave the pond, if the otters swam too close. I didn’t want to risk a direct encounter with them, at least not on my first visit. It could scare them off for several days.

At 6:30 a.m. it was still early, warm and cloudy. The floating giant lily pads lay still on the surface of the water. Perfect conditions for otter spotting.

A black hawk landed high in a tree across the pond. An arapaima surfaced to take a breath, porpoise-like, not far from where I stood. Small fish jumped. A green kingfisher dove into the water, speared a tiny fish, and flew into the bushes. Pied marsh tyrants, kisdadees and red capped cardinals perched on a water logged tree. The air smelled wonderfully clean, like nothing.

An hour and a half later, no otters. As usual I had been overly optimistic.

Maybe the water levels were still too high. Maybe the otters had been in the pond and I had missed them somehow.

Minutes later, I heard the unmistakable sound of a giant otter swimming: a loud inhale, “UHHG” followed by a soft exhale, “ah”, then silence, then again, “UGHH-ah.”

I watched the water lilies in the distance, waiting for them to move as the otter swam through. Sure enough, there was a wave of water along the farthest edge of the pond. Then a second one. There must be two otters. Switching to my binoculars, I looked for brown heads popping out of the water, but found none — always a risk when they are far away. Otters move unbelievably fast underwater. The key, as I’ve learned over the years, is to listen first, watch second, use binoculars third, and try to take a photo last.

I put the binoculars down and listened. Moments later I heard the umistakable popping sound of otters jaws crushing fish bones, somewhere in the distance to the right. I scanned the far edge of the pond and thought I saw a flash of white. Aiming the binoculars in the same general direction, I finally spotted them. They were about as far away as they could be, but they were there!

The otters had apparently just hopped onto land. The larger one, which I decided must be a male, was eating a large fish; he had a bib of white on the underside of its neck with a dot of brown in the middle. The second, presumably a female, had a white throat patch with blotches of brown.

I switched my binoculars for my camera, knowing the photographs would be almost useless. But at least they would document the location and time, if not the physical features of my two new friends. Moments later the otters were gone again.

It was 8:15 a.m. I would be late for breakfast as it was, and if I didn’t hurry, Andrea and Salvador would send someone to look for me. I could, after all, be eaten by a jaguar.

As you can see from the following photos, I was fortunate to see the same pair of otters again on each of the next five days. Each day, the water level had dropped, and the otters swam farther into the pond.

One of two giant otters fishing on a pond. Karanambu, January 2, 2013

One of two giant otters fishing on a pond. Karanambu, January 2, 2013.


A pair of giant otters swims across the third honey pond at Karanambu. January 3, 2013.

A pair of giant otters swims across the third honey pond at Karanambu, January 3, 2013.

A pair of giant otters (male left, female right) swims across the third honey pond at Karanambu. January 4, 2013.

A pair of giant otters (male left, female right) swims across the third honey pond at Karanambu, January 4, 2013.

The male giant otter stops to survey the pond. Karanambu, January 4, 2013.

The male giant otter stops to survey the pond. Karanambu, January 4, 2013.

The female giant otter stops to survey the pond. Karanambu, January 5, 2013.

The female giant otter stops to survey the pond. Karanambu, January 5, 2013.

A pair of otters fishing in a pond. Karanambu, January 6, 2013.

A pair of otters fishing in a pond. Karanambu, January 6, 2013.


Giant otter orphans leave Karanambu


Belle with Phillip fishing at Karanambu February 2011.

The news was at once upsetting and exciting. Belle and Phillip, the orphaned giant otters growing up at Karanambu, had swum off with a wild otter the day before (April 21) and had not returned. Staff had gone out in boats searching for them, alternately calling out their names, “Belle, Belle, Bell … Phillip, Phillip, Phillip,” and yelling, “Fish, fish, feeeeesh,” but with no response. They’d given up the search a few hours after dark. The otters would have found a place to sleep for the night by then, or they would be dead.

This has happened before with other orphans. Sometimes they reappear and, having learned that there is much more river out there, establish a new routine, spending a few days at Karanambu and then a few days on a walk-about/swim-about. In other cases, they go off with a wild otter and are seen again, or not. But the worst case scenario also happens. Diane has also found her beloved beasts seriously injured or dead not far from Karanambu. The process is heartbreaking for her regardless of the outcome. She says the worst part is not knowing. Then again, giving the orphans a chance to interact naturally with wild otters is an essential step in their rehabilitation.


Belle with Phillip at Karanambu

Several times during the prior week, Phillip and Belle had been down at the Karanambu landing as usual, under the watch of their otter capatash, Dorman, when they were suddenly seen swimming with a third otter. It had been a positive encounter with no sign of aggression. This alone was a good sign. In past years, positive encounters with wild otters at the Karanambu landing have almost always led to successful rehabilitation. Negative ones have led to fatal aggression — often witnessed by Diane and others — or severe injury.

A few years ago, Diane and I reviewed the outcome of her program and published it in a scientific journal. We found that most of the orphaned otters in her care over the years had made it to the age when they were physically healthy and fit enough to return to the wild. About half of these made it back. This figure was based on positive sightings of known orphans. The percentage that survive may be higher, though; it’s difficult to be certain you are not seeing an individual otter around Karanambu given the tremendous amount of habitat available to them.

When the orphans leave and how it happens depends in part on their age, sex and how many there are at the time. Though we don’t have enough cases to make a firm (statistical) conclusion, it does seem that a single older female otter has a good chance of survival: these otters often go off with single males and presumably become breeding pairs. Young single males seem to be at high risk of an early death, either by other otters or caiman. Bonded young otters, like Philip and Bel, also appear to have a better chance of making it, particularly if they are adopted by wild otters with young, or about to have young. The ideal situation has occurred just a few times: the orphan returns to Karanambu for a free fish meal, and brings with it their wild family. It’s an amazing opportunity for an up close encounter.


Diane with Belle at Karanambu

Since I am generally an optimist, my reaction to the news of Belle and Phillip’s departure was a positive one. I think they have a great chance of surviving. Diane was worried, of course. They weren’t the best fishers, she reminded me. She was in Georgetown at the time and anxious to get back to Karanambu. I talked with her by Skype and tried to say positive things. I even congratulated her — they were on their way to being wild giant otters.

Two days later, there was more news (April 23). Diane had returned to Karanambu and had spent several hours down by the landing with fish, in case the orphans returned. Then the excitement began. Phillip was seen in Honey Pond Three with at several other otters. The boys who spotted him had gone out fishing; one was Dorman. He later described the encounter as friendly.


Honey Pond Three near Karanambu

Dorman called. Phillip responded. The other boy raced to find Diane. In retrospect, I think even she would admit she over reacted a bit. Frantic that Phillip was barely alive, she called for the LandRover, but it was somewhere near Yupukari along with most of the adult staff of Karanambu. Instead she rounded up as many boys as she could to carry a transport crate along the trail to the Honey Pond, knowing she would have no hope of getting him into it unless he was near death. Within the hour, she had met Dorman and Phillip on the trail back to Karanambu. The otter wanted nothing to do with being carried anywhere. He was thirsty for water, however, and Diane was able to coax him all the way back to the pens. Once there, he ate readily. I talked to Diane at this point by SKYPE. She said he seemed quite back to normal, though she guessed he was missing Belle. He had no wounds; no sign of trauma. Again, this was good news. Her plan was to take him to the landing as usual the next day. Maybe Belle would return, or he would go looking for her and the two would come back to Karanambu — or not. (These two orphans came from different places on the river so they are not related and we have wondered if they might become a breeding pair. Then again, males and females raised as siblings are generally believed to be less likely to breed with each other.)

Two more days passed and Phillip left again.

The next day (April 26), Phillip was seen briefly at Karanambu, this time right across the river from the landing in the company of two other otters — both judged to be adults, although one could have been Belle. Grabbing fish and fuel, Diane and Salvador jumped in a boat, and moved slowly down river calling for the otters. The boys thought one of the others was Belle, but they weren’t sure. The third was the same wild otter who’d first come to the landing. It is presumably a young male. No one has seen them since.


Belle (left) and Phillip (right) at Karanambu

Over the past 18 months, a lot of people pulled out all the stops to help this pair of orphans, especially Diane, Andrea, Salvador, Evi, Stefy, Talia, Kirsty, and the otter capatashes. If only we knew for certain that Belle was with Phillip, and that they were part of a known group of otters. It is incredibly sad to think we will never see them again. Unless the two are spotted again, Diane will fear the worst. Even so, I have to believe they made it. Diane gave them the chance to return to the wild, and they took it. The rest is up to them.

In The News: Guyana’s Rainforests


As you can see on the map above, Guyana is a relatively small country — about the size of the state of Idaho. It is also a biological hotspot. The reason: a combination of factors, including the tropical climate, proximity to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Amazon Basin, and geology unique to this part of South America, known as the Guiana Shield.


North Rupununi flooded wetlands

The North Rupununi region, in particular, where Karanambu is located, is an extraordinary natural area. Seasonal flooding of the savannahs and wetlands adds to the diversity here. There may be as many as 600 species of freshwater fish — more than anywhere on Earth.


Rupununi River near Karanambu

Guyana is also a developing country whose leaders have pledged to do something other than develop its forests, savannahs, and wetlands. Instead, the government of Guyana, in partnership with the government of Norway, is in the process of implementing a “low carbon development strategy, (LCDS).” Read more about this partnership. As a result, Guyana is increasingly in the news. There is a link at the end of this post to a recent article as an example in which the author offers an update on the status of LCDS.

To summarize the article, and my own experience in Guyana, it’s far too early to tell if the strategy will be successful, but there is plenty of reason for optimism, particularly if those of us working on behalf of conservation in Guyana collaborate with each other, and with the government, to identify the most important areas to hold back from development. This is what we — at the Karanambu Trust — have been working on for the past several months.

The following photos show some of Guyana’s diverse landscape from the air taken on the flight from Georgetown to Lethem via Karanambu. I took the first one just after take off. Georgetown is located right on the coast–and below sealevel — protected from flooding (most of the time) by a series of canals and a sea wall.


Guyana from the air


The sea wall which protects the coastal city of Georgetown from flooding (most of the time).

The next shows where the mouth of the Essequibo River, one of Guyana’s five major rivers, flows into the Atlantic Ocean.


Essequibo River flowing into the Atlantic Ocean

As the plane banks and turns inland, toward the west and south, we and fly over fields of rice and sugar cane; some of these crops are exported, but most of the yield is sold within Guyana, including rum and beer.

Rice And Sugar Cane Crops

Rice and sugar cane crops

Within minutes of leaving the coast, the scenery changes to bushy low forest with sandy soil. Some of this sand is exported to replenish Carribbean beaches.

A short distance from the coast the scenery changes completely

A short distance from the coast the scenery changes completely.

Then the rainforest begins — and continues for nearly an hour. Trees fill the landscape. From a distance, their tops look like the heads of broccoli with yellow and orange highlights.

The Rainforest

The Rainforest

The Clouds Are Gorgeous

The clouds are gorgeous, especially when it has just rained.

The Essequibo is a still a major river as it winds through the lowland rainforest, fed by many smaller tributaries; as it winds through the trees, the water looks simultaneously dark red-brown and clear.

The Essequibo River winding through the rainforest

The Essequibo River winding through the rainforest

Suddenly, the scenery changes. Instead of trees there are brown patches. Trees are harvested for their wood to be sure. But the main activity is mining — for gold; also bauxiteAn aluminium ore which is the main provider of aluminium.; silt from these operations flow into the river — along with chemicals, no doubt.

Brown patches show the scars of tree harvesting and gold mining.

Brown patches show the scars of tree harvesting and gold mining.

As we continue toward the border with Brazil, the Pakoraima mountains begin to emerge. There forest here is once again largely intact, due in large part to the existence of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, and its patron, the Prince of Wales.

The Pakoraima Mountains

The Pakoraima Mountains

After flying over the Iwokrama forest, we reach the North Rupununi wetlands. Aside from the road, a few villages and ranches, the landscape here remains relatively intact. But this, too, will change. There is a company (four companies, actually, that work together: Groundstar, Canacol, Sagres, and Takutu Oil and Gas) drilling for oil near Karanambu and Yupukari village. More on this in a future post.

Untouched For Now

Untouched For Now

There is also the threat of large-scale monoculture agriculture. These photos, also from the air on the flight from Karanambu to Lethem, show crops being grown just on the other side of the border in Roraima, Brazil.

Jaguars at Karanambu? Yes!

When I saw this photo yesterday it took my breath away. This is the first camera trap photo of a jaguar at Karanambu. Of course, we know this gorgeous cat lives here — there is plenty of evidence, including tracks, cow attacks and rare sightings. Diane even has a story about a jaguar on the dining room table from years ago. Diane’s bedroom is right next door. She could hear him, several nights in a row, eating a chicken a night, until they were all gone. Even so, to actually see one is something else! Wow.


A jaguar caught on camera.

The trap was set by Dr. Evi (EE-vee) Paemelaere, the Karanambu Trust’s first resident conservation biologist. I met Evi when I had just arrived though my visit would be brief: 9 days. Evi, on the other hand, will be at Karanambu for the next year. Initially, her work will focus on a survey of jaguar population density funded by under the guidance of its northern South America coordinator, Dr. Esteban Payan.


Evi Paemelaere, Karanambu Trust’s first resident conservation biologist

The exciting thing is that Evi’s work promises to reveal all kinds of important information about the wildlife of Karanambu. Even before Evi captured her first image of a jaguar, she set a few traps just as practice, to make sure the batteries, memory cards and focus were all working properly. Her practice run captured both a male and female ocelot, and a savanna fox. (Evi is sending me these photos so I can post them.)

So the jaguar study will also serve as a starting point for the survey of the wildlife of Karanambu. We also hope Evi is the first of many talented scientists to call the Karanambu Trust House their home base.


Karanambu Trust House

As I have written before, we are at a critical point in the future of Karanambu. In order to help the surrounding communities develop the region in a sustainable way, and ensure Karanambu’s 125 square miles continues to be managed sustainably, we must first establish baseline data about species diversity and health. Only then can we begin to properly monitor the impacts of human activity on the wetlands and savannahs. Our strategy is to focus on key indicator species, including giant otters, jaguars, giant anteaters and arapaima, and possibly other species such as giant river turtles (if there are enough left to survey.) We cannot manage what we don’t understand. The next photo is a roadside hawk, taken near the gappo.


A hawk is just one of many species making its home at Karanambu

Studying the wildlife of Karanambu has always been part of Diane’s vision, but we (the Trustees of the Karanambu Trust) have not had the support system in place to make this a reality until very recently. The key has been the arrival of Andrea and Salvador DeCaires, who joined Karanambu last August as the new managers of the Karanambu Lodge. Salvador is also the project coordinator for the Karanambu Trust.


(l-r) Diane, Andrea and Salvador

With Andrea and Salvador on-the-ground at Karanambu, we were finally able to put the word out that we were looking for a conservation biologist. We feel fortunate that Evi found out about the position, and that she was willing and able to find her own funding (through Panthera) to get started. We are excited about the future as there is no doubt Evi will help craft a research plan for the future. As I will write in a future post, the Shedd Aquarium team will also soon begin a study of fish and macroinvertebrate health and diversity, as well as water quality. We also have two short-term Peace Corp volunteers starting at Karanambu this week.

But back to the jaguar, ocelots and fox. All three were captured in the same place, just off the road from the airstrip to Karanambu in the strip of bushy woodland known as the “gappo.” This is a low area of bush that floods in the rainy season. It’s less than a mile from the Rupununi River, which is where the main Karanambu Lodge compound is located. In many ways, the gappo separates the open savannah out near the airstrip (shown in the photo above) — which is also where the Karanambu cattle range — from the small bit of savannah that surrounds the Lodge.


Open savannah near the airstrip


Karanambu cattle being kept safe from jaguar



During the dry season, it takes 15 minutes to drive from the airstrip to the Lodge, through the gappo where it might be a little muddy



During the wet season, the bush becomes a waterway and the only way to get from the airstrip to the Lodge is to take a boat through the flooded bush, through a series of ponds and out to the main river

On my second day at Karanambu, we heard the news that someone saw a jaguar at the gappo. We investigated, of course, and found several tracks. The next photo of a jaguar track is certainly not the best example, but I was convinced as there are large oval toe pads and a smudge of a heel pad which is not made by any other creature I know of. The camera trap photo proves my suspicion.


A jaguar footprint


An ocelot footprint

The gappo near Karanambu is also part of what is called the “three mile bush” which runs south and west of the airstrip toward the village of Yupukari. Evi has set her 16 camera traps throughout the bush. She is out and about today collecting the memory cards from several more. It will be exciting to see what she finds.

Phillip and Belle orphan otters: growing wild

As you can see in the photos below, Belle and Phillip, the orphaned giant otters growing up at Karanambu, have tripled in size since my last posting. The two play with each other almost constantly — when they are not catching fish. For a pair of hand-reared otters, they are quite wild.

Belle and Phillip

Giant otters, Belle and Phillip, have a good time playing with each other.

Belle and Phillip

Although they look adorable, they have sharp teeth which they will not hesitate to use on a stranger.

Phillip, in particular, has become a biter. He has gone after a number of people and delivered several serious bites, usually to the ankle or back of the arm. Belle often follows him with the intent to sneak in a second nip. Even Diane is routinely bitten, though not as badly if the person were a stranger. This is, of course, perfectly natural. The downside is that visitors to Karanambu need to stay a safe distance away from this appealing but potentially dangerous pair.

Diane McTurk, founder of the Karanambu Trust

Diane McTurk, founder of the Karanambu Trust and otter caregiver extraordinaire, with Belle.

Both otters are also afraid of boats. Though this is also what one would expect of wild animals, the orphans had to be taught this behavior. When Phillip and Belle were still cubs, Stefy and Talia worked hard to teach them to run at the sound of the outboard engine. We know from past experience that an otter that jumps into a fisher’s boat or runs up to a person expecting a free fish meal is likely to be welcomed with a knock on the head, or worse.

Belle with fish

Belle enjoying a fresh-caught fish.

The result of all of this is that during my most recent visit to Karanambu in early February, I observed Phillip and Belle from the safety of a boat. As usual, for every photograph in focus, I took two dozen blurry ones. I left feeling relatively optimistic about the future of these two orphans. As long as the Karanambu staff can protect them from aggressive caiman and solo male otters — both known killers of orphaned otters, in addition to angry fishers — they have a good chance of making it back to the wild. When the water level drops, they will probably leave Karanambu. I am predicting they will go as a breeding pair; Diane is not as certain. As with many carnivores, when a male and female grow up together in close quarters, they rarely breed.

Phillip playing with a fish

Phillip playing with his food before eating

Belle "posing" for her close up.

Belle “posing” for her close up.

Then again, it is possible that nothing will be normal about the upcoming dry season.  Even now, in February, the river is still so high that there is no sight of the sandbank. The creeks are still running high between the Honey Ponds, which means the fish, and the otters, can be anywhere. This would explain why I saw only one pair of wild otters on one day out of eight on my walks to pond number three. Even the sky cannot seem to decide whether to cloud with rain or clear with sunshine.

Rainbow over the Rupununi River

Rainbow over the Rupununi River

I have been away from my blog for much longer than I had planned. My mother became suddenly ill early last fall and died three weeks later. Since then, I have not been able to write — until now. During my last visit to Karanambu, I realized how much I missed writing to her about my adventures there. Yet the stories go on. Who knows, maybe one day I will write the “giants of Karanambu” book we once talked about.

More about the latest at Karanambu from me within the week.

To the Rupununi

Rupununi, Guyana, Sept. 1, 2010 — Thanks to Ilze, we capped off our day at the fish market in Georgetown with a terrific cocktail party. She is always thinking of fun ways to get her work done! The reception was in the Mango Café at Cara Lodge, the beautiful old hotel where we were staying. The turn out was even better than I had expected. Most of the Karanambu Trust and Karanambu Lodge board members were there, along with a dozen other friends and family, several staff from Iwokrama, including their executive director, Raquel, and a team of canopy forest scientists visiting from England.

The outskirts of Georgetown, Guyana

The outskirts of Georgetown, Guyana, from the plane

Morning couldn’t come soon enough! Only one flight ride to reach Karanambu. The only obstacle left was the weather. Fortunately, the skies began to clear just as we arrived at the airport, and the sun was out by the time we took off.

Ogle Airport waiting for the flight to Karanambu

From left, Chuck, Cheryl, Diane, Allen, and Nicole at Ogle Airport waiting for the flight to Karanambu

As the unofficial tour guide, I felt as though I should point out the names of the rivers and major towns as we flew south and west. But over the din of the engine, it was impossible to say much of anything. No matter. Everyone was lost in his or her own thoughts, watching the sea of green below.

View from the plane

View from the plane

View from the plane

View from the plane

There are not many places in the world where the deforestation rate is less than 0.01 percent (this number is according to Dr. Graham Watkins, the lead scientists for the Karanambu Trust and a world expert on Guyana). Even so, we flew over  a half dozen logging camps and mines. Each seemed bigger than my last visit six months ago.

Deforestation due to mining

Deforestation due to mining

Rain was falling again by the time we cleared the mountains. Initially, the savanna looked like a grassland. But as we began our decent, I could see that the ground was covered in water. In some places, it was hard to pick out the borders of the Rupununi River among all the shiny ponds and marshy areas. I realized that it would be hard to see wild otters on this trip — it always is in the rainy season. They follow the fish and with all that water, they could be anywhere.

View from the plane

View from the plane

View from the plane

View from the plane

We arrive at Karanambu in the next post!

Buddy at the Zoo

Karanambu, Guyana, Aug. 25, 2010 — My apologies for the gap in posting.  I’ve been teaching a short course for middle and high school teachers on noise pollution and it’s been all consuming.  I will pick up on our adventure to the Rupununi with Ilze, Allen, Chuck, Cheryl, and Nicole from the Shedd Aquarium very soon.  I will also be back in Guyana at the end of this month.

Meanwhile, today the PR folks at the Jacksonville Zoo sent a link to a video about Buddy–apparently the story aired on July 30.  It’s good to see him enjoying his fish meals.  The end of the piece left me frowning, though.  The reporter ends by saying there’s a twist to the story.  The otter once lived in a village and was chased out but no one knows why.  My initial reaction was, What did she say?  I’ve tried to post the link to the video but it doesn’t seem to work reliably.

Buddy at Iwokrama, July 22, 2009

Buddy at Iwokrama, July 22, 2009

Sadly, there is no mystery about how Buddy ended up at Karanambu, at least not the way I heard the story.

Here’s a summary:

Buddy and his sister were taken out of the wild as cubs and raised by an Amerindian family as pets.  One of the otters killed a villager’s bird.  In retaliation, the female was killed and Buddy was chased from the village.  Because he was so imprinted on people, he swam a short way down river and started begging for fish at the nearest dock.  This happened to be the landing for Iwokrama, an internationally funded center for forestry research.  The staff there called Diane when they realized Buddy would soon become a nuisance, he had maggot-infested wounds around his rear end, and there were wild otters in the area who might kill him, if people didn’t.

Maybe this story is not the truth.  But it makes sense to me and I’ve been visiting Karanambu since 1996.  In addition,when I examined Buddy, he had several scrapes around his neck, as well, just under his left ear.  And what felt like a piece of metal under the skin on the nape of his neck–the lump is visible in both of the photos in this post.

buddy giant river otter

Once at Karanambu, Buddy settled into a fairly healthy routine except he was much older than most of the orphans Diane has been able to rehabilitate.  He was accustomed to his freedom.  One day he returned from a swim with severe trauma to both eyes.  In this case, we know less about what took place.  But these were injuries consistent with several smacks on the head–very likely the result of another negative interaction with people.  He subsequently lost most of his vision, and though he continued to swim and fish at the river, it was clear he could never go wild.  The Jacksonville Zoo had a prior agreement with the government of Guyana for a breeding loan for a non-releasable wild giant otter.  And that’s how Buddy moved to Florida.

The way I see it, even though Buddy was hurt by people, he was also helped by people, dozens of them!  I wish the whole story had been told in the video.  Why wasn’t it?  I can think of a few possible answers.

1) It would take too long and would sound too complicated.

2) This a good news story–otter rescued by zoo–so let’s not ruin it.

Ah well.  At least it was good to see that Buddy is safe and eating up a storm.  I do hope he will one day breed.