GUY-04: Kaieteur - Awake, O Sleeping Giant
Neil Marks Guyana Chronicle - Georgetown noviembre 2006
Kaieteur National Park is but a paradox
Here is a natural wonder of unparalleled distinction, one that invites reverential awe, but attracts a mere 200 visitors or so per month. Some of its teeming plant and animal life are rare and endangered. Its beauties include the rare Guiana Cock-of-the-rock, and the gold dart-poison, giant tank bromeliads and carnivorous plants.
As for the falls, Kaieteur, its distinction lies in the unique combination of great height and large volume.
It reflects a tumble of 741-feet in a single drop, rushing 45, 000 gallons of Potaro’s black water off the escarpment down to a magnificent gorge, making it one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world, rivaling even the Jog falls of India’s Karnataka state during the monsoon season.
In the western hemisphere, Kaieteur Falls is second in height only to Angel Falls, Venezuela (3012 feet), and is five times the height of Niagara Falls at the border of the US and Canada. Unlike Angel Falls, Kaieteur carries a large volume of water year round.
According to legend, the falls is named after Kaie, one of the great old chieftains of the Patamuna people, who inhabit the Pakaraima mountains in Guyana’s interior. He is said to have committed self sacrifice by paddling his canoe over the edge of the falls, to appease Makonaima, the great spirit god, in order to save the tribe from being destroyed by the savage Caribs.
However, as Shyam Nokta, the chairman of the Kaieteur National Park Board says, there is much to relish than the falls itself.
He says Kaieteur is a protected area since 1929, having been so designated by the colonial government, "out of recognition of its immense value" in terms of its landscape and ecological value.
"In 1929, it became perhaps one of first protective areas in this part of the hemisphere, and preceded Guyana becoming independent. This tells the extent to which Kaieteur has been recognised," he says.
When local tour company Rainforest Tours and the National Parks Commission decided to undertake an overland trip to Kaieteur to help boost its ratings, Shyam decided to take the trip.
In the four years he has been at the helm of the management body for the Park, he has not been satisfied with the visitor figures to Kaieteur. What’s more, he operates on a tight budget and there is only so much he can do to protect the biodiversity of Guyana’s best known, but least experienced natural wonder.
Usually, visitors are flown from the Ogle airport, on the outskirts of Georgetown, to the Falls. There they spend a mere two hours. Nokta says it is unfair to them to spend so much money, about US$200, about the same cost to a Caribbean island from Guyana, and experience so little.
The overland trip was decided upon not only to aggressively begin a marketing strategy that allows visitors to experience the rich biodiversity of the Park and the challenges of the landscape, but also to examine ways of restricting illegal activities and unauthorised entry to the park.
Nokta headed the team that included representatives from the National Parks Commission, the Guyana Forestry Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Hydromet Department, and myself, as the lone journalist.
The 11-member team departed on November 1. Our journey would take but two days. The team departed Georgetown and headed to Pamela Landing, Mahdia, where we then boarded speedboats for Amatuk, where Frank Singh of Rainforest Tours has a house and employs Amerindians to cooks meals for those he takes on expeditions to the Park. He has been doing it for years now.
From there, it was off to Waratuk, the station at the entrance to the Park. Here, Nokta has come to commission the monitoring station, which was completed at a cost of G$3.8M. Two wardens from the Amerindian community of Chenapau have been hired to conduct the monitoring exercise. They have been provided with a multi-frequency radio set, an electrical generator, a water pump and wooden boat.
Nokta tells members of the team that the station is ideally located as it allows for monitoring and enforcement of the rules governing the park, which details no mining or hunting.
He says too the station has facilities to provide overland visitors with accommodation for a night. We would know, we were able to sling our hammocks for a good night rest.
Nokta points out that the most difficult challenge he faces is being able to monitor the Park.
The 1929 law was effected "to provide for the control of the said park and for the preservation of natural scenery, fauna and flora of the said park".
It originally encompassed 44 square miles, but in the in the early 1970’s the park boundaries were reduced to 7.5 square miles around the falls to take advantage of the mineral resources of the area.
The Act has been amended over the years, the last being in March 1999, when the area of the Park was increased to 242 square miles with the hope of conserving the inherent natural beauty of Kaieteur for future generations.
Nokta says much of the Park is densely forested and much of it is inaccessible. Much activity, whether for tourism or research, is carried out in just about a five mile radius around the falls, as such Nokta says the challenge is being able to monitor the wider Kaieteur area, "being able to monitor the movement of people in and out, and to prevent illegal activities such as mining."
The Park board has adopted a zero tolerance policy towards mining, and the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission, the EPA, the Forestry Commission and the Police conduct a coordinated exercises at least twice a year to ensure that this policy is not being violated.
For all of the Park, there are but four wardens, and another is currently being trained. Nokta says the Park board is looking to strengthen its relationship with the various agencies to be able to better monitor Kaieteur. He envisages a permanent police presence at Kaieteur.
The challenge he faces is that the Board does not benefit from a government subvention and so primarily depends on the landing fee it collects from visitors. This is a mere US$10, but this might soon increase to US$15. The rest of the revenue comes from that charged for overnight visitors who occupy the guest house for a measly US$12.5 each. Further, little revenue comes in from a newly erected souvenir shop which lies just off the airstrip.
As such, much development of the area depends on this minimal funding and the behest of the National Parks Commission which has to budget funds for Kaieteur and the country’s other parks.
Kaieteur National Park supports abundant plants and animal life but Nokta says a comprehensive biodiversity assessment has not been conducted. All the research done, has concentrated just around the falls, and he says that’s just "scratching the surface.
According to the EPA, in addition to outstanding geophysical features, the Potaro Plateau in which Kaieteur nestles, supports many different habitats. In some areas the forest opens into a wide shrub-herb "Guiana" type savannah. Absent of all but a few trees, the pink sands support scattered shrubs and a dense mat of small herbaceous plants that appear in the wet seasons. Numerous species of lichens and delicate herbs spring out of tiny cracks and on the surface of the rock.
Along the river, white sand forests are composed of numerous tree species, such as Wallaba (Eperua), Brazilnut (lecythidaseae) and the coffee family (Rubiaceae).
At night, a group of us decide to take a walk on the airstrip. Intimately, we are covered with the mist from the falls. With all but white in view, its like if we are walking in clouds. It’s a beautiful feeling that speaks to the majesty of the natural giant nearby.
Gibson explains that as the mist rises from the gorge, a cloud forest habitat is created at the top of the falls along the riparian forest which supports more epiphytes than a typical rain forest, yielding tree branches covered with mosses, orchids, ferns and aroids.
There are several endemic species of plants found in Kaieteur area including a member of the family Rapateaceae, endemic to the Guiana shield and a recently described fern, Hecistopteris kaieteurensis.
Little is known about the animal species of the Potaro Plateau, according to documents supplied by the EPA. Preliminary studies from recent visits by specialists have indicated that this area is particularly rich in animal life, and that the presence of previously unidentified species is probable.
Historically, agouti, paca, tapir, red brocket deer, collared peccary, bushmaster, labaria, jaguarundi, raccoon, golden frogs and tegu have been recorded for this area.
Although the fauna inventories for the area are incomplete, there are a number of animals considered under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) to be extremely rare, in broad geographic range.
Important species known to be in the area are the cock-of-the-rock bird, as well as bush dogs (Speothos venaticus), listed by CITES as extremely rare.
The avifauna of the area attracts interest and enthusiasm. Several of the species are new to Guyana and others and considered to be rare or endangered. The Plateau has a number of larger mammals of international conservation importance, including the giant otter and bush dog. Jaguar is said to be present and is reported not to be hunted, and small wild cats are known.
The presence of these large mammalian predators, combined with such large avian predators as the harpy eagle, as well as the abundance of smaller species of hawks and falcons, suggest that both the Plateau’s aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem are probably healthy, each with a large volume of prey species, the EPA points out.
The number of primate species is high for the region, and the list includes a number of species that are elsewhere rare in the country, such as Spider monkeys. The presence of Cebus albifrons, the EPA says, means that the Plateau has three species of capuchin monkey in the same area, a very rare occurrence.
Recent studies have recorded 187 species of bird and 53 or 54 species of mammal. The area’s topography means that the plateau has the potential for exceptional biological diversity due to the enhancing effects of altitudinal zonation of flora and fauna.
However, at Kaieteur, an overnight night tourists’ delight and that of the overland team, is being able to see the golden dart-posion frog and the Guiana cock-of-the-rock, the dance of the swifts and the giant tank bromeliads.
Gibson boasts that the Cock-of-the-Rock, called so because they build their nests on faces of cliffs, large boulders, caves or steep gorges, knows his call. Maybe so, he has worked here for over a decade, both as warden and tour guide. We were not able to see one as he claimed from the bottom of mount Tekuit, from where we had to climb 1, 800 feet up and then 300 feet down to the falls. But as he conducted the tour of the falls’ immediate environs, we did catch site of the beauty.
He informs us of the dance the males perform to win over the attention of the females. Their courtship leks include loud noises, brilliant coloured plumage and active display.
Unfortunately, such conspicuous advertising also attracts predators to Cock-of-the-Rock leks. In Suriname, Trail (1987) found that the calls of Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock males displaying at leks could be heard several hundred meters through the forest and a diverse group of predators was attracted to the leks studied.
The golden dart-poison frog, called Colostethus beebei, Gibson informs, has toxins 1, 600 times that of cocaine. It’s a scary but amazing revelation for us. You know we aren’t going close to that thing, except with our cameras of course.
The bright yellow/orange frog spends its entire life-cycle inside the micro-ecosystem of the cloud forest's bromeliads. It is an opportunistic sit-and-wait predator whose diet includes many small arthropods, but especially mosquitoes and midges.
The most eye-catching plant in Kaieteur National Park is Brocchinia micrantha, a thick-stalked terrestrial Bromeliad that can grow to 12 feet high. Gibson actually knows these by their scientific name. He says it comes from the years he has spent at Kaieteur and his privilege of interacting with the different researchers that come.
The bromeliads grow through the unique microclimate the falls has created. It collects water in a "tank" formed by the base of its leaves.
Unlike tourists who fly in to Kaieteur for a two hour stay, those who stay overnight are able to see the dance of the swifts, either at sunset or sunrise.
The white-chinned and white-collared swifts are easily recognized by their rapid, fluttering flight, and long, narrow wings.
They make their home on the nearby cliffs of the plateau as well as behind the falls itself. These insect-eating birds fill the air at dawn and dusk, and they spend most of their waking time in the air, skimming around the falls and feeding on flying insects.
At night they sweep down at amazing speed to settle in their roosts. The roar of the torrent is immense, yet these tiny birds dive through the raging water to safety behind.
There currently exists no management plan for the environmental conservation and protection of the Kaieteur National Park although a master plan for ecotourism development of the Park has been produced with support and assistance from the Organisation of American States.
The Government of Guyana is pursuing the establishment of a Protected Areas System and is currently advancing this objective through the National Biodiversity Advisory Committee, with the implementation of the National Biodiversity Action Plan, which was approved by the Cabinet in November 1999.
However, with his limited funding, Nokta looks at improving the infrastructure at Kaieteur, not just for tourism, but for managing the Park.
The plan is to develop eco-lodges to encourage more overnight visitors. Ideally, it would be located next to a stream, in an open area, so as not to interrupt the vegetation in the immediate area of the falls. The walk to the falls would be under 10 minutes.
Also, the plan includes establishing a center for visitors, which would provide washroom facilities, basic interpretation, and refreshments.
Nokta is currently "shopping" around for donor funding to realise the plan. He also wants to see an administrative centre that would house the wardens. He also wants to see a health worker based at Kaieteur.
He sees a continuing role for the two communities closest to the falls and it immediate environs. Chenapau is most important.
It is located outside the boundaries of the Park, but two of its representatives, including the Patamuna village captain sit on the Kaieteur board.
The community has but 500 inhabitants, and over half of the workers at Kaieteur are from Chenapau. The people speak their traditional Patamuna dialect, but they understand speak English as well.
For a living, they engage in hunting, farming, fishing and small-scale mining. They use bow and arrow to catch birds, animals and fish. Warishi, a traditional backpack made of vines, is used to transport their produce and during their spare time they knit fishing nets, hammocks and slings used to carry their babies.
Their traditional meals include cassava bread, pepper pot, fish, and wild meat such as labba, wild hog, wild deer, agouti, and birds such as marudi and powis.
With the establishment of the souvenir shop at Kaieteur, Nokta says a new door is opened to the Patamuna people. He wants to help the community to go into craft production to supply to the shop, so that they can have another source of income.
Nokta points out that the eco-tourism project of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is important to the community. A guest house is on its way to completion and an airstrip is underway.
Nokta says this will open up the community to tourism. It will give outsiders a change to indulge in the traditions and history of the Patamuna people, who have over the centuries mastered the art of living off the mountains.
However, while Chenapau rests outside the Park, Menzies Landing, a community of coast Landers rests within the Park.
According to Nokta, it has existed for over a decade now and was formed to facilitate the movement of goods to the miners in the greater area. Menzies Landing came into existence because of the fact that the only airstrip for the area was at Kaieteur.
Nokta has had his share of problems with this "transient community".
"We work closely with them, they know they are residents in park and they have to abide by the regulations. When we noted activities to the contray, we have had to take firm action," he says.
What happens to Menzies Landing in the long run, is beyond the jurisdiction of the Park board which Nokta heads.
He wants to see no activity that troubles with the biodiversity of Kaieteur. His ultimate goal is to see an increase in visitors to Kaieteur, not those who spend only two hours, but those want to spend longer.
As such, Nokta would like to see much more of the overland expeditions to Kaieteur.
"The true experience lies in being able to visit areas much beyond the falls - the experience of camping out in the rainforest, interacting in an intimate way with biodiversity, being able to visit Chenapau, and other communities. It is much more that experiencing the natural beauty of Kaieteur, but the culture and rich history of the Patamuna people," he says.
And why, he doesn’t leave out the self accomplishment of being able to traverse the same terrain of Charles Barrington Brown, who became the first European visitor to discover the falls on April 24, 1870. Along the Potaro river, a feeling of euphoria envelopes your entire being as you spot the falls from a distance, with forest covered mountains surrounding you, each painting a new picture of the world beautiful. When you see waters from Kaieteur gushing at the bottom of mount Tukeit, the climb ahead seems no more daunting.
When you trek up the "Oh, my god!" mountain and the falls opens to your eyes, you know you have accomplished no ordinary feet. And what a trophy the view is for the effort!
As it is, Kaieteur is but a sleeping giant, waiting to be awakened and to be explored by the world over.