You have to wait until dusk. Then you walk down to the river with your group, your guide and the black caiman research team. You board your boats and launch into the black water. Your caiman research expedition has begun.
As a guest of the Caiman House Lodge, you have the rare opportunity of witnessing first-hand research scientists as they go about the job of capturing, measuring and tagging black caiman—the largest member of the Alligatoridae family—in the wild.
Located in the village of Yupukari in central Guyana, Caiman House Lodge and Research Station is a non-profit organization owned and operated by the indigenous villagers. In addition to the black caiman, the Research Station studies, rears, and cares for populations of yellow spotted Amazon turtles.
As darkness settles on the Rupununi River, the creatures of the night begin to stir. Riding in your boat, you may be able to see tree boas, iguanas, frogs, and many fish species (i.e., arowana, piranha). You look for sleeping birds (kingfishers, small perching birds) nightjars, potoos, Boat-Billed Herons and other aquatic birds, bats, (harmless) spiders, insects, moths, and more. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of possums, capybara, and sleeping monkeys.
The research crew is a part of the Rupununi Learners, an organization that began in 2005 in Yupukari with the desire to bring a holistic approach to environmental conservation, encompassing wildlife research, education, economic development and cultural preservation.
The black caiman is a much-loved reptile in the region, and the field study surrounding it is a full-blown community project. Yupukari and other villages participate in gaining new insights into the species.
The specific objectives of the black caiman mark-and-recapture field study are:
- Conduct a detailed ecological study of the black caiman
- Recommend protocols to resolve human/caiman conflicts
- Develop a cadre of indigenous naturalists for the continued study of crocodilian species, to educate local people on conservation and management issues, and to assist in the implementation of sound conservation practices
- Enhance the knowledge of the black caiman through scientific publications and other media.
Meanwhile, back on the river, the research team patrols the banks with a hand-held spotlight, looking for the reflection of a black caiman’s eye. Your boat stays in the middle of the river, a comfortable distance away from the researchers.
Suddenly, there’s a commotion at the researchers’ boat. The team has captured a black caiman. It doesn’t go in the boat, but is gently dragged alongside it to a sandy clearing on the riverbank. Your boat captain heads for the riverbank, and you step off onto the soft sand.
Once secure, the animal’s snout is taped shut, and research can begin. (Like alligators, caimans use very powerful muscles to close their mouths, but not to open them.)
The first thing the researchers do is to check if the captured caiman is one they’ve captured before. If so, they note the date of the tagging so they can measure the animal’s progress. If not, a small chip is placed beneath its scales. This does not harm the animal.
After taking some initial measurements, the caiman is flipped on its back, which essentially renders it powerless, and the researchers beckon you to approach.
If you’ve ever wondered what a black caiman feels like, this is your chance to find out. You can kneel down beside the caiman, and run your hands over its coarse tail and smooth belly. The researchers may even ask you to hold down the caiman’s tail while they measure its length. (Black caiman can grow up to 15 feet long.) Next, the researchers determine the sex of the caiman. Because this can’t be done visually, the researchers reach into a small hole on the animal’s belly and determine which sex organs are inside.
Finally, the caiman is tied to a beam with a scale on it and hoisted into the air by two researchers to determine its weight—usually between 150 and 200 pounds for adults.
With all the data carefully recorded, it’s time to release the caiman. The researchers flip the caiman back onto its belly, untape its closed mouth, and with a snare still around its neck, lead the caiman down to the water. The researchers then carefully remove the snare.
The caiman is often exhausted and/or disoriented, and needs to be coaxed back into the water with shouts and claps from the researchers. Eventually, however, the caiman slides into the dark river and silently glides away.
In Guyana, we recognize we have a responsibility to protect and conserve our spectacular natural and cultural treasures. We’re equally blessed that so many of our visitors want to lend a hand in doing so. To find out what you can do to help, please check out our Visitor Guidelines For Sustainable Travel. We look forward to welcoming you to Guyana.