To the west of Guyana, next to the border with Brazil and Venezuala, lies a large area of semi-arid grassland known as the Rupununi savannah. Spreading over 5,000 square kilometers of grassland, wetlands and the rainforest Kanuku Mountains, the Rupununi is a biodiversity wonderland home to jaguars, giant anteaters and over 250 species of birds, including the Red Siskin Spinus cucullatus (critically endangered).
This small, bright red and black bird was spotted here for the first time in 2000. It was a surprising discovery as it was believed to exist in small numbers in Venezuela, Colombia, and Trinidad at the time. Intensive poaching for the trade in cage birds had almost threatened the species with extinction in its range.
The newly discovered population in Rupununi was an important lifeline for the species, so protecting it became the focus of a local NGO, the South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS). Over the past twenty years, SRCS has collected a wealth of data on Rupununis Red Siskins and has recruited local community leaders, students and other stakeholders to serve as conservation officers for the species.
Red Siskin, Guyana, Copyright Dubi Shapiro from the Surfbirds Galleries
In 2005, our Conservation Leadership Program (CLP) supported one of the first SRCS projects that gathered valuable new information about the bird’s population size and distribution. The team also worked with village leaders and teachers in the local Native American communities to form wildlife groups for schools and set up surveillance activities that continue to this day.
In another follow-up project, supported by CLP in 2013, SRCS trained community members as rangers, tour guides and researchers to create further protection for Red Siskins in the region, generate income for protection from ecotourism and gaps in scientific knowledge close about this life cycle, movements and behaviors.
Data gathered from these CLP projects and other subsequent research has recently led to the establishment of South Central Rupununi as the first Major Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) in Guyana. As an NGO originally founded by a group of friends to protect the beloved animals and landscapes they grew up with, this is undoubtedly a significant accomplishment for SRCS.
“The confirmation of South Central Rupununi as the first IBA in Guyana is an important milestone for us,” said Neal Millar, program coordinator for SRCS. “It is the result of years of dedication to the red siskin and we hope that we can now use this global recognition to provide further protection for the species and to help other local NGOs approve further proposed IBAs in Guyana.”
After receiving a grant for the Sustainable Wildlife Management Program (SWMP) (2018 – today), SRCS aims to work with communities to ensure the protection of the red siskin through the creation of locally managed “safe zones”. The idea is that the local people create rules to prevent threats to the siskin, and SRCS rangers enforce those rules in the safe zones so the birds can thrive.
Beyond birds …
The SWMP grant, along with recent funding from the UNDP-GEF Small Grant Program in Guyana, allows SRCS to raise its awareness of other threatened species in the Rupununi savannah.
These include the giant anteater, a species listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Very little was previously known about the species in the region, but through camera surveys, SRCS has now identified 26 individuals in one village alone! Here they plan to control a community-administered anteater safety zone and to expand research and surveillance to three other villages. SRCS recently recorded a very rare clip of a female anteater named “Holyfield” breastfeeding her baby.
Neal Millar, SRCS Program Coordinator, explains how Holyfield got its name: “We first recorded Holyfield a few months ago and found that she was missing a piece of her ear. So we named it Holyfield after boxer Evander Holyfield, who had Mike Tyson bitten off part of his ear during a fight. Usually we let tourists who come to see giant anteaters name them and often donate to SRCS. But for special ones like Holyfield we call them ourselves. “
SRCS has also designed and implemented an environmental education curriculum for indigenous school children living in Rupununi communities. The curriculum includes lessons about local wildlife, the Rupununi environment, and traditional knowledge imparted through hands-on activities such as bird watching, camera trap setting, traditional crafts, and excursions. The aim of the curriculum is to motivate these young people to protect the natural environment. SRCS hopes to establish the curriculum in 16 schools and reach over 1,500 students by 2023.
Ultimately, SRCS aims to work with local communities to protect the Rupununi’s wildlife and habitats. A major focus is on creating sustainable avenues for the benefit of the people living in this biodiversity landscape, for example through the fast-growing ecotourism sector in Guyana and through initiatives that reward communities for the conservation of biodiversity.