Sustainable wildlife management key as Guyana faces rapid economic change

Communities focus on management of fish and wildlife crucial to livelihoods
A man retouches a “No Littering” sign in preparation for a heritage festival in the Rupununi village of Shulinab. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

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If you drive along a rural road in Guyana’s southern Rupununi region at night, your headlights are likely to pick out a caiman waddling across the road or a couple of foxes bounding ahead of your vehicle.

Most roads in the area are unpaved, and traffic is light, so relatively few animals are killed by vehicles. But that rate could rise in the near future. Guyana is poised for a cascade of changes that could have dramatic impacts on the Rupununi landscape, its wildlife and the people who depend on fish and wild game for food.

In 2020, the country is set to begin offshore oil production, which is expected to triple the gross domestic product in a nation with fewer than a million inhabitants and no paved highways. Government officials have pledged to use some of the money to upgrade infrastructure.

Even before the oil bonanza loomed, plans were afoot to pave the road from Lethem, on the Brazilian border in the Rupununi, to Georgetown, the capital on the Caribbean coast. A paved road will make travel much easier and increase access to markets, but increased traffic and larger vehicles could also result in more road kill.

Expansion of the road network and paving of the highway, which crosses part of the Rupununi’s huge, seasonally flooded wetland, could disrupt the region’s rich fisheries and other wildlife habitats unless well-designed plans are in place, local community leaders and other experts say.

   Nathalie Van Vliet and Oswin David of SWM Guyana are interviewed on Radio Aishalton on 10 September 2019. Photo by Barbara Fraser/CIFOR
   Alyssa Melville of the South Rupununi Conservation Society presents the new environmental education curriculum to students and parents at Sand Creek Secondary School. Photo by Barbara Fraser/CIFOR.

“I think we will be seeing many changes in the next few years,” says Nathalie van Vliet, site coordinator of the Guyana branch of the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme, which is working to improve the conservation and sustainable use of wildlife in forest, savannah and wetland environments in 13 countries.

To help communities and policy makers plan and prepare for those changes, SWM-Guyana is working with villages and local organizations to develop and implement plans for managing fisheries and wildlife. The program is also providing support for projects aimed at promoting alternative livelihoods through wildlife-based tourism and livestock improvement, as well as environmental education for schoolchildren.

“There’s evidence that the landscape is changing very quickly” because of factors that include population growth, increased connection to markets, changes in hunting and fishing techniques, and climate change, van Vliet says. “A lot will depend on transformations in the economy and cultures in the Rupununi and how people manage their land.”

Varied landscape, varied uses

The southern part of the Rupununi region is an expansive savannah dotted with forest patches known as “bush islands” and bordered by wooded mountains. In the north, a large wetland floods annually, creating a rich fishing ground.

The region is known for its wildlife, including jaguars, giant anteaters, giant otters, caimans and the brightly colored and endangered red siskin (Spinus cucullata), which draws birdwatchers from around the world.

Rupununi residents depend on wildlife for their livelihoods in various ways. More than half of all households depend on fish as their main source of protein. Eight out of 10 rural residents and almost all indigenous residents also report eating wild meat regularly. There is also a growing nature tourism industry centering on visitors interested in seeing the region’s birds and animals, but poised to expand into other types of adventure tourism.

   A fisherman on the Rupununi River in southern Guyana takes aim with a bow and arrow. Although many use fishing nets, local people still use bow and arrow to fish for certain species. Photo by Barbara Fraser/CIFOR

But population growth and increasing economic needs have led to changes in local livelihoods, including hunting and fishing practices. Although they still use traditional hook and line, or bow and arrow, for fishing, people increasingly use nets for fishing. This increases their catch, so they can sell fish to purchase necessities such as school uniforms or household items. Hunters who once used only bow and arrows or traps now hunt with shotguns. This has taken a toll on wildlife, as local residents say that certain fish species and large animals are becoming scarcer.

To help ensure healthy fisheries and wildlife populations in the future, SWM-Guyana is gathering data and working with local communities and organizations to implement management plans. It also supports environmental education, to reinforce students’ appreciation of their natural surroundings and cultural heritage, and to develop an awareness of the importance of conservation and wildlife management.

   Nevea John, 57, fastens a sheet of wax to a frame while building a beehive during a beekeeping workshop in Guyana’s Rupununi region. Photo by Barbara Fraser/CIFOR
   Nevea John, 57, fastens a sheet of wax to a frame while building a beehive during a beekeeping workshop in Guyana’s Rupununi region. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

Managing for future needs

Because many Rupununi families depend on wild meat for protein, it is important to manage wildlife in a way that ensures a supply now and for the future, van Vliet says.

In both the northern and southern Rupununi, organizations made up of toshaos, or leaders, of Amerindian villages are developing, refining and implementing plans for community management of the wildlife and fisheries on which villagers depend.

Fisheries management in the extensive Rupununi wetlands is a key issue for the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB).  Activities for implementation of a management plan include gathering data about how and where people fish, consumption of fish, and fish stocks in rivers.

   Participants in the workshop on sustainable hunting, held in Aishalton, Guyana, on 8-10 September 2019, meet in small groups to discuss common concerns. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

In the south, SWM-Guyana is supporting the Wapishana Wai Wizzi Wildlife Management Committee, which was recently created by the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC)  to help communities establish hunting guidelines and wildlife management practices based on traditional knowledge. Wildlife monitoring is a key activity, but the committee will also report on illicit activities such as illegal mining, unauthorized hunting and the illegal wildlife trade.

Committee members say they face various challenges, including unsustainable levels of hunting and wildfires that degrade and destroy wildlife habitat. Runoff from illegal mining threatens water quality in the region, and community conservation monitors risk assaults by wildlife poachers or cattle rustlers when they patrol their territories. Members also hope to explore the possibility of raising animals such as peccaries or agoutis domestically.

   Ozias James, 25, of the village of Apoteri, Guyana, poses with two young peccaries that he hopes will be the start of a breeding project. Photo by Barbara Fraser/CIFOR
   Gerald Melton of the village of Apoteri, Guyana, examines a young anteater that his family is raising. Photo by Barbara Fraser/CIFOR

Throughout the Rupununi, increasing road traffic is also a threat to wildlife, so the program is gathering data about the wild meat trade along roads and consumption of meat in the Rupununi and other parts of the country. The program is also collecting data about road kills, which will help with future monitoring of the impact of infrastructure upgrading, such as the paving of the road from the border to Georgetown.

Education and ecotourism

“We want young people to be educated to appreciate the wildlife in their communities,” said Cedric Buckley of the SDRC’s wildlife management committee. The South Rupununi Conservation Society, a local environmental organization, is currently pilot testing a new environmental education curriculum in elementary and secondary schools, with support from SWM-Guyana.

Jacqueline Allicock of Surama, Guyana, speaks at the workshop on sustainable hunting, held in Aishalton, Guyana, on 8-10 September 2019.

In the north, the NRDDB’s outreach efforts include radio programs about conservation issues, interviewing both older people and youths about traditional practices and culture. Educators also visit primary schools and involve both children and adults in wildlife monitoring and data collection.

Besides Amerindian villages, the Rupununi region is dotted with ranches that were established by families who migrated to the region several generations ago. Cattle graze freely, and consumers value their grass-fed flavour, but cattle rustling is a problem. Because of the relatively small number of cattle in an extensive area, productivity is also low. With support from SWM-Guyana, the Rupununi Livestock Producers Association is exploring ways of creating new markets for the Rupununi beef and diversifying production with robust chicken breeds.

To supplement their income, ranchers pioneered nature tourism in the region, catering first to Guyana’s diplomatic corps and then to other foreign tourists. Local communities now also offer nature tourism, as well as opportunities for tourists to participate in cultural activities and sport fishing. This range of activities means that wildlife management is also important for the ecotourism industry, said Melanie McTurk, who heads Visit Rupununi, an umbrella organization for tourism operators in the region.

   A cowboy drives a herd of cattle in Annai, Guyana. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

In September 2019, SWM-Guyana brought together community representatives from six countries to discuss common concerns and share solutions about subsistence hunting and wild meat.

The gathering was the first ever held in the countries of South America’s Guiana Shield region, van Vliet said. At the end, the participants issued a joint community statement with recommendations for governments.

“Because of their experience, communities have a great deal to say about wildlife management,” van Vliet said. “Workshops like these help make their voices heard in places where policies are developed.”

For communities to manage wildlife sustainably, it is crucial for them to have legal rights to and control over their territories, the community leaders said during the workshop.

“In places where they have land security, people want to protect their land and their resources,” van Vliet said. “When they are engaged in sustainable use, they stand against potential threats from outsiders who act illegally.

As long as good governance is in place, communities make an important contribution to sustainable wildlife management and conservation.”

For more information, please contact Nathalie van Vliet: nathalievanvliet@yahoo.com

The Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme is an African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) initiative funded by the European Union and implemented by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

For more information on this topic, please contact Nathalie van Vliet at nathalievanvliet@yahoo.com.
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