Protecting habitat, preserving heritage at the Karaawaimin Taawa

Q+A with Guyanese bird specialist Asaph Wilson
The majestic mountains of Karaawaimin Taawa. Marlondag / FAO

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In Guyana’s remote South Rupununi region, which abuts the northern border of the Brazilian Amazon, there’s a mountain range that’s especially important to the Wapichan, an Indigenous group that lives in the area. Called Karaawaimin Taawa, or Blue Clay Mountain, it’s a hotspot for biodiversity and a traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering ground, which also serves as a significant watershed for communities downstream.

Recently, however, gold mining in the area has begun to impact the ecosystem. Rivers that previously ran clear are becoming cloudy, making traditional bow-and-arrow fishing extremely difficult. Wildlife populations are starting to change as habitats are impacted. In that context, the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC) – the leading Indigenous organization in South Rupununi – approached the Sustainable Wildlife Management Programme (SWM), which has been supporting sustainable use and conservation initiatives in the Rupununi since 2018, to carry out a biodiversity assessment of the Karaawaimin Taawa area.

While the assessment is the first of its kind, the Wapichan have been tracking and managing wildlife successfully in the area for decades. Asaph Wilson is a Katoonarib villager, bird identification expert, and member of the South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS). He is also one of the researchers involved in the assessment, which took place in March 2022. While the assessment is being finalized for publication, we spoke with Asaph to hear more about his work, his experience during the assessment, and his hopes for the future.

Asaph Wilson, a local bird expert, lives in Katoonarib Village of the South Rupununi. Luke McKenna / FAO

Q: What does being a monitor for the South Rupununi District Council entail?

A: I was working as a bird expert along with ornithologist Brian O’Shea. We were doing a bird survey for Karaawaimin Taawa and trying to find which species were present in the area. While there were fish scientists and insect scientists and many others, we were looking at the birds.

Asaph Wilson and Brian O’Shea record the birds they find in the Karaawaimin Taawa area. Marlondag / FAO

Q: Why did you choose to do the biodiversity assessment in Karaawaimin Taawa in particular?

A: We went there to do research because the headwaters of our country are more and more important, but the mining area there is polluting the water – including with mercury – and it’s the last pristine water area in the whole country. A lot of villages depend on that water: in South, South Central and North Rupununi, all the villagers live along the rivers, and their fish and water are being contaminated with poison; some Indigenous villages have said that they can’t even drink water from the river anymore. So we are trying very hard to protect our headwaters.

That’s why we went in to do a rapid assessment of birds, insects, mammals and fish, to see whether there were any particularly important or endangered species in there that people should know about.

Q: What was it like doing the assessment?

A: It was a little hard for us logistically – we had to hike in there. We were in different groups depending on what we were looking at: birds, mammals, fish, beetles, bats, reptiles and amphibians. We also had an anthropologist. It was great; we found a lot of things – I think there were some frogs that had never been found before. The whole assessment lasted for two weeks, but we still have a lot more work to do, going forward.

Q: Any highlights about the results of the assessment concerning birds?

A: The result shows that there is a healthy population of birds in that area, because not too many people go there. There is no commercial trapping or hunting of birds because access is very difficult. Large frugivores birds like guans and powis (currassows) were particularly abundant. These birds are important as a traditional source of food and are also vital seed dispersers. We found at least 15 species of parrots and 16 species of raptors during the assessment, including the slaty-backed forest-falcon and the harpy eagle. Many birds of prey are strong indicators of a healthy ecosystem.

A pair of scarlet macaws fly from their nesting spot. Marlondag / FAO

Q: Do you think this information will help protect the Karaawaimin Taawa?

A: Yes, we are trying to develop an understanding with the government, because we don’t want exploitation here, especially from gold mining or timber felling in our pristine forests. This information will help us make a point.


This is the first article in a three-part series on the Karaawaimin Taawa Biodiversity Assessment, the results of which will be published in 2023.


For more info on the SWM Programme, join the side event “Wild meat and the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework: highlights from the Sustainable Wildlife Management Programme”  at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) CoP 15 on Tuesday, 13 December.

The SWM Programme in Guyana is part of an initiative from the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), funded by the European Union with co-funding from the French Facility for Global Environment (FFEM) and the French Development Agency (AFD). It is being implemented by a dynamic consortium of partners that includes the CIFOR, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). Its aim is to improve food security and the conservation and sustainable use of wildlife in forest, savannah, and wetland environments in 15 countries.


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