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."

"Everything you need" includes tons of food, fuel, medical supplies, spools of fishing line, machetes for cutting trails through jungle, axe heads, ropes and spikes for climbing cliff faces and trees, kerosene, and equipment for preserving botanical samples. Supplies and equipment are hauled upriver in dugout canoes and carried into the forest.

Moving through uncharted territory is a major challenge. Waterways become narrower and shallower, blocked by fallen trees, logjams, and sandbars.

Travel on land can be even more complicated. "There are no trails, of course," said Clarke. "Moving around is a matter of hacking your way with a machete and stumbling, climbing, or sliding over whatever obstacles present themselves.

"Keeping track of where the heck you are is tough in the forest," he said. "There are no landmarks, it's hard to see very far, and whatever maps are available are about as reliable as those that say 'Here be dragons.' We climb trees several times a day to get a [global positioning system] reading and re-adjust the compass heading."

Canopy Climbing

Plant collection under such circumstances is slow and painstaking, done in battle with a multitude of what Clarke calls "creepy-crawly-stingy-bitey creatures," which include wasps, flesh-eating maggots, mosquitoes, snakes, and piranha, to name a few.

Before the plants reach the molecular labs of modern science, they're collected with hand clippers and preserved in newspaper. Many are collected from the very top of the forest canopy, requiring iron spikes, extendable pole clippers, and a fair amount of nerve and tree-climbing skill to reach.

Although the collecting methods may be similar to those of explorers 200 years ago, the eventual results are high-tech. Information collected by Clarke and others is compiled in a database, adding to an extensive amount of information that has been collected over the past 20 years by the Biological Diversity of the Guianas program of the Smithsonian Institution.

Scientists use this information to generate computer models that can help address one of the major environmental challenges of the 21st century: how to balance conservation goals with those of national and international development.

While policymakers wrestle with the knotty issues of sustainable management, Clarke is attending to the last-minute plans for his upcoming trip—this time during rainy season.

"Normally the best season for plant collection is when the plants are flowering or fruiting. Sometimes it's the only way you can identify them," he said. "But during rainy season you'll find different things."

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