Giant Otter Orphans Leave Karanambu

Bel with Phillip fishing at Karanambu February 2011

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 (on April 21)  and had not returned.   Staff had gone out in boats searching for them, alternately calling out their names, “Belle, Belle, Belle….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.

Bel and Phillip playing at Karanambu

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.

Several years ago, Diane and I reviewed the outcome of her program and published it in a scientific journal a few years ago.  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(s) returns to Karanambu for a free fish meal, and brings with it (them) their wild family.  It’s an amazing opportunity for an up close encounter.

Diane with Bel and Phillip giant otters Feb 2011

Diane with Belle at Karanambu Feb 2011

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

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.

Bel (left) and Phillip (right) at Karanambu Feb 2011

Belle (left) and Phillip (right) at Karanambu Feb 2011

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 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 wetlands flooded Aug 28, 2010 8-24 AM

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.

Guyana Map

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.”  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.

Rupununi River near Karanambu Aug 28, 2010 8-29 AM

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.

Georgetown, Guyana canals Aug 28, 2010 6-55 AM

Georgetown Guyana sea wall Aug 28, 2010 6-57 AM

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

Essequibo River mouth at Atlantic Ocean Aug 28, 2010 6-58 AM

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 the rum and beer.

Rice and sugar cane Gtown Guyan Jun 16, 2010 10-44 AM

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.

Sandy soils forest Guyana Aug 28, 2010 7-48 AM

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.

Guyana rainforest treetops2 Aug 28, 2010 8-07 AM

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

Cloudy skies1 flight to KB Aug 28, 2010 7-15 AM

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.

Essequibo in the rainforest Guyana Aug 28, 2010 7-51 AM

Suddenly, the scenery changes.  Instead of trees there are brown patches.

Rainforest development Guyana Jun 16, 2010 10-54 AM

Trees are harvested for their wood to be sure.  But the main activity is mining–for gold; also bauxite; silt from these operations flow into the river–along with chemicals, no doubt.

Rainforest development extensive Guyana  Jun 16, 2010 11-07 AM

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 link to Iworkama is to the left.)

Guyana highland to lowland rainforest Sep 3, 2010 1-07 PM

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.

North Rupununi wetlands Aug 28, 2010 8-09 AM

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.

Agriculture2 in Brazil near Rupununi Feb 18, 2011 1-11 PM

Agriculture1 in Brazil near Rupununi Feb 18, 2011 1-09 PM

Below is the link to the story from yesterday, April 1, about Guyana’s low carbon development strategy, “A historic move in the battle to save tropical rainforests” by Tony Juniper of the

More soon about the oil drilling.

Common Potoo and More – Photos of Karanambu Wildlife

Here are some of my best photos of Karanambu’s wildlife, beginning with the Common Potoo.  This is a chick – probably about 3 weeks old – and not quite ready to fledge.  It was hatched on this stump!

Karanambu Common Potoo Jul 27, 2009 6-35 AM

Potoo egg

Jaguars at Karanambu? Yes!

1 First jaguar camera trap photo

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.

2 Evi at Trust house Feb 11, 2011 3-21 PM

The trap was set by Dr. Evi (EE-vee) Paemelaere, the Karanambu Trust’s first resident conservation biologist.  I took this photo of Evi in mid-February as she worked away at her computer during her first official week at Karanambu.  I had just arrived, too, 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.

Keeping cows safe from jaguar Karanambu Feb 18, 2011 7-16 AM

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 – shown in the next photo – their home base.

3 Karanambu Trust House Feb 11, 2011 2-35 PM

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.

Roadside hawk near gappo Karanambu Feb 14, 2011 9-05 AM

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.  The photo below shows Diane with Andrea and Salvador in the office at Karanambu.

4 Diane Andrea and Salvador Feb 11, 2011 3-21 PM

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.

Savannah near Karanambu gappo Feb 14, 2011 8-55 AM

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.

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, as shown in this photo.

5a Karanambu gappo waterway Feb 14, 2011 9-14 AM

During the wet season, the bush becomes a waterway, which is why Diane calls it the gappo  and the only way to get from the airstrip to the Lodge is to take a boat through the flooded bush and through a series of ponds and out to the main river.  Here is the gappo in wet season.

5 Gappo in August

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.

6 Jaguar print at gappo Feb 14, 2011 9-16 AM

The next track is an ocelot.  (There were also fox tracks but I failed to snap a picture.)

7 Ocelot print at gappo Karanambu Feb 14, 2011 1-00 PM

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 still playing

Belle and Phillip giant otters playing

Belle and Phillip Giant Otters Playing

Belle and Phillip giant otters playing

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 as 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 with Belle giant otter

Diane McTurk with Belle giant otter

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 giant otter eating fish

Belle giant otter eating 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 catching and playing with fish

Phillip catching and playing with fish

Belle giant otter orphan

Belle giant otter orphan

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

To Karanambu  Jun 16, 2010 10-43 AM

The outskirts of Georgetown, Guyana, from the plane

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.

As Ilze and I introduced Nicole, Chuck, Allen, and Cheryl to each of the guests, we tried to explain who did what and where.  They absorbed as much of this information as they could, but even then it must have been very confusing.  Georgetown itself can be overwhelming with its mix of cultures.  Ultimately, nothing will really make sense for them until we get to Karanambu.  Morning couldn’t come soon enough!  We were almost there.  The only obstacle left was the weather.

To Karanambu  Jun 16, 2010 9-39 AM

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

Fortunately, the skies began to clear just as we arrived at the airport, and the sun was out by the time we took off.  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.  There are not many places in the world where the deforestation rate is less than 0.01% (this number is according to Dr. Graham Watkins, the lead scientists for the Karanambu Trust and a world expert on Guyana.)

To Karanambu  Jun 16, 2010 10-52

To Karanambu  Jun 16, 2010 10-61

Even so, we flew over  a half dozen logging camps and mines.  Each seemed bigger than my last visit six months ago.

To Karanambu  Jun 16, 2010 10-59

To Karanambu  Jun 16, 2010 11-12

To Karanambu  Jun 16, 2010 11-54 AM

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.

To Karanambu  Jun 16, 2010 11-70

To Karanambu Jun 16, 2010 12-07 PM

To Karanambu Jun 16, 2010 12-13

We arrive at Karanambu in the next post!

Buddy at the Zoo

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 GO day 3 jul 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.  If you have time, see my prior blogs about Buddy’s rescue starting here:

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.

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.

To view the video, try here:

The Georgetown Fish Market

The Georgetown market was buzzing with people by the time we arrived at 9 AM.  I felt instantly lost, and a bit claustrophobic.  The hot, humid air, combined with a bit of jet lag, didn’t help.  As we wandered through the maze of merchandise, vendors called out their best deals and shoppers bargained.  Just about everything was on sale, from plastic flip-flops and number two pencils to green peppers and freshly sliced pineapple.

Georgetown fish market Jan 15, 2010 9-19 AM

Stabroek Market, Georgetown, Guyana

There were six of us: myself, a classmate of mine from vet school, Dr. Ilze (il-za) Berzins, who is Vice President of conservation, research, animal health, and education at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and four of her staff—Allen, Cheryl, Chuck, and Nicole.  This was our first day together in Guyana and I was the tour guide. The Shedd team wanted to see what species of fish were locally available.  I knew better than to try to navigate the market on my own, so I hired our taxi driver to help.

Georgetown fish market Jan 15, 2010 9-25 AM
Bananas, cassava, bora, melons, ginger, and more at the Georgetown market.

Soon flies were buzzing over our heads.  Our driver paused to let us know we were getting close.   From a distance we could see a woman selling shrimp and a fish with yellow fins.  The driver pointed to a covered area ahead and explained that shellfish and smaller fish were sold just outside.  We would see bigger fish inside.

Georgetown fish market Jan 15, 2010 10-35
Fresh shrimp and fish at the Georgetown market.

The crabs were the next creatures to catch my eye.  They were hanging from each other like a string of unusual beads.  Stooping to take a picture, I smiled at the woman selling them, hoping to make up for the fact that I wouldn’t be buying anything.  She looked at me, raised her eyebrows, and announced the price.  She frowned when I shook my head and said, “No, thank you.”  Maybe I looked as though I could easily afford to buy the whole bucketful.

Georgetown fish market Jun 15, 2010 10-44 AM
Crabs for sale.

“These are very beautiful crabs,” I said, trying to explain why I wanted to take photos.  I hadn’t thought of coastal Guyana as being home to much of anything except mud and garbage.  I was also trying to figure out how the crabs were tied together.  Then I realized they were still alive.  I kept my next thought to myself: put them back in the sea where they came from.

Georgetown fish market Jan 16, 2010 7-13 AM

The coast near Georgetown, Guyana – the Pegasus Hotel is in the distance.

I quickly shifted my attention to the woman selling shrimp; she sat next to the crab lady.  This time I asked first if it was okay to take a photo.  She shook her head.  Using the display on my camera, I showed her the photo I’d taken of the woman selling the yellow-finned fish.  This worked, sort of.  She nodded her okay, but then stuck out her tongue for the photo.  The three of us shared a big laugh.

Georgetown fish market shrim ladies2

Ladies selling fish and shrimp at the Georgetown market.

The crab lady once again suggested I buy something.  I offered yet another explanation: I was just visiting and didn’t have a kitchen and so couldn’t cook.   She jumped up from her seat and said, “That’s okay, honey, I’ll cook some up for you right now!”  Glancing at my potential meal sitting in the warm sun, I declined.  (I’m a vegetarian, in any case.) She wasn’t giving up.  “Okay then, just come on back tomorrow when you’re ready!”

Ilze and all Georgetown fish market
Shedd Aquarium team visits the Georgetown fish market.

By this time, Ilze and her group had moved on inside the tent.  I lagged behind, trying to make friends with the vendors so that they wouldn’t mind my taking photos.  I took dozens of pictures of fish that I didn’t recognize, including very strange looking one that was deep yellow-gold in color.

Georgetown fish market Jan 15, 2010 4-36 PM
Man selling fish at the Georgetown market.

At one point, I chatted with one man about what it was like to get up each day and sell fish.  He said he loved his work, even though it meant showing up at the docks very early in the morning to buy from the local fisherman, and staying late to clean his corner of the market for the next day.  He was intrigued to hear that a group of Americans had come all this way just to see what kinds of fish people in Guyana eat.  When I told him we were headed to the North Rupununi tomorrow to learn about the fish that live there, he raised his eyebrows in surprise.  Obviously, he thought we were a pretty odd bunch of tourists.

We left the fish market happy for a breath of fresh air, and glad we’d made the visit.  It had served its purpose, and then some.  Ilze and I were reminded of how rapidly Guyana is developing.  We were struck by the number of new cars on the roads, and new buildings in construction.  The trip was also helpful for first-time visitors Allen, Cheryl, Chuck, and Nicole.  It gave them a sense of what life is like in Georgetown.  As they’ll soon find out, Karanambu couldn’t be more different.  We fly there tomorrow.

To be continued. . .

One Less Otter at Karanambu: Update

Here’s the latest on Buddy’s move to Florida, from Talia Galloway, Karanambu Trust Orphan Otter Keeper:

So after a long couple of days we finally arrived at the zoo about an hour ago! Buddy was unloaded in his crate and set up in quarantine. He currently has access to two of the inside pens, one has some pallets and a clean crate (with towels) for him to sleep in if he wants, and the other has a big deep pool with toys. The crate door was lifted and I expected Buddy to come right out….nope…he was sleeping! He also didn’t seem to want to go to the end of the crate that was soiled, so we spun it around, I called him and he came right out. He has only been given a relatively light breakfast so far because we didn’t want to risk him gorging/getting sick. He seems very relaxed and is slowly walking around both pens learning where everything is.

Buddy should be a poster boy for international zoo transfers! I admit that yes I am probably biased but he was so calm and quiet for the entire journey, I was really impressed. He spent most of his time curled up asleep on a towel. As I’ve said above, he seems to be settling in well, he’s gone for a swim to cool off and has been having big drinks of water. He just has to choose a toilet corner, I think he’s holding it in again since he’s not sure where to go. He certainly held off soiling the crate for as long as he could, and then when he did he went right at one end and stayed out of it.  I am taking lots of pictures and will send them as soon as I can.

I think that’s all I have to say at the moment otherwise I’m in danger of repeating myself. I hope this all makes sense and apologize if it doesn’t! My brain is more than a little foggy at present.

More updates soon!


One Less Otter at Karanambu

Buddy Go w Arapaima catch1

When I think of Buddy, the image of him catching a fish twice his size comes to mind.  This happened a few months ago at Karanambu.  Stefy and Talia had taken him down to the Rupununi River for his afternoon feeding and a swim.  They had plenty of fish to feed him on that day, which meant he was full of energy—enough to go fishing for himself.  To everyone’s astonishment, he emerged from the water with an eighty-nine pound arapaima.  There’s a photo of him struggling to drag his prize onto the sand bank.

None of us can figure out how Buddy found such a huge fish so close to the landing.  It seems that it must have been his lucky day.  But what’s really amazing is that he was—and still is—mostly blind.  Then again, giant otters don’t use their sense of sight as much as they do their sense of smell and touch to hunt for fish in low light, or along the murky river bottom.  He was just fishing like any other giant otter.

8 Buddy GO

Once Buddy ate his fill, the next question was what to do with the fish.  Apparently, he objected loudly when several strong young men tried to take the fish away from him.  They had to drag it, with Buddy helping, up the path to the main house.  Because arapaima are endangered, it was technically illegal for the Karanambu staff to consume the rest of the fish.  Or was it?  This was also the year of the first legal harvest of arapaima in the North Rupununi.  There had been a quota set of one hundred fish to be caught by traditional bow and arrow.  But the number caught (36) was far lower.  Maybe Buddy’s fish counted as number thirty-seven.


A few weeks before Buddy’s great catch, he managed to pull something almost as impressive out of the river: a huge stingray.  Stefy said the otter was so bloated after eating his fill that his belly touched the ground.  This is the second image of Buddy that comes to mind.

Sadly, Buddy won’t be fishing in the Rupununi any longer.  The good news is, though, he has a much better chance of survival.  As I write he is on his way to the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida, USA.  There he will be safe from attacks by wild otters, caiman, and people.  He will have a chance to breed.  He might even regain some vision with intensive medical care.

Admittedly, the odds of Buddy going wild again were low from the beginning.  Having grown up in an Amerindian village, rather than the isolation of Diane’s otter pens, he is very imprinted on people.  (See prior blog posts from June 2009 about how Buddy came to Karanambu.)  Instead of being focused on Diane, he will follow anyone with fish in their hands.  All agreed that it was only a matter of time before Buddy jumped into someone’s boat to steal fish.  In retaliation, he would probably be killed.  It has happened before.

When Buddy was injured and lost most of his vision, his chances of going wild dropped to near zero.  He became an easy target for wild otters or caiman.  In the meantime, he kept growing and his play with Diane became more aggressive.  In recent months, she hasn’t been able to swim with him without getting dunked and bitten.  But full containment wasn’t a realistic option.  The otter pens at Karanambu have never been set up to contain an otter completely, or for 24 hours a day.  Diane’s strategy all along has been to keep the orphans safe at night, and give them their freedom down at the river during the day.  This is the only way they can learn to be wild again.


Despite all of this, had the Jacksonville Zoo not had a prior giant otter breeding loan agreement with the Government of Guyana, I’m not sure that Buddy would be anywhere other than at Karanambu.  The move is without a doubt the best thing for his survival, but it feels terrible.  I have a knot in my stomach that won’t go away.  Part of my reaction is a selfish one, a sense of failure.  The other part has to do with the fact that unlike other zoo-born otters, Buddy knows what it’s like to swim and fish in his natural home.  I can only imagine his surprise when takes his first dip in chlorinated water.

I’m sure Jacksonville Zoo will share Buddy’s story and I’ll post any links here.  We’ll all be following along to hear how he adjusts.