Biologists Document Rich Plant Life of Guyana to Aid Conservation

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
May 8, 2001

"It's 18th-century biology in the 21st century," laughed H. David Clarke as he prepared to leave for a plant collection trip deep in the interior of Guyana.

Perched on the northern edge of the Brazilian Amazon, Guyana—the "land of many rivers"—is a hothouse of tropical biodiversity. Its interior is one of the last undisturbed rain forest habitats left in the world, harboring an incredibly diverse collection of plants and animals. The area is uninhabited except for scattered Amerindian (indigenous) tribes.

Guyana's natural wealth is threatened, however, by the country's massive debt, the modern-day plague of undeveloped and developing countries. Huge tracts of land are being granted to large-scale multinational corporations allowing them to extract timber, gold, and bauxite from the pristine environment.

"Very little is known about the biological resources in the region, and these decisions on allocations are not being made based on science," said Clarke, an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. He has made numerous trips into the interior with support from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and others.

"There are a lot of questions we can't really answer about plant distribution and dispersal, how climate change is affecting ecosystems, biogeographic patterns…you can't make conservation decisions without the biological data," Clarke said.

"Here Be Dragons"

Biologists and botanists are working to provide such information to decision-makers. Conducting the science, however, is not for the faint-hearted.

"Here [in North America], we can pretty much walk through the woods and conduct an inventory of the plant life and its distribution," said Clarke. "But in Guyana, the flora just doesn't obey the rules. Things can pop up anywhere. The plants you find in one area could be completely different from what you see just a few miles away.

"There are so many plants that have never been identified, or even seen before, that we have to collect specimens and examine them in the laboratory to get a correct identification," he explained.

Clarke collects plant samples mainly in areas that have never been surveyed—far from the riverbanks, in the mountains, and in seasonally flooded forests. The logistics of such expeditions are not that much different from those of the 18th century, said Clarke.

"Expeditions run on the basis of some very basic commodities. You have to carry everything you're going to need with you," he said. "If you run out of supplies, the expedition is over."

Continued on Next Page >>


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