South Rupununi Society working to protect critically endangered bird species

Asaph Wilson during a field survey

The South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS), one of the leading grassroots conservation nongovernmental organisations in the country, is working to protect critically endangered bird species found in Guyana.

In May 2021, SRCS was awarded funding from two separate organisations: Re:Wild and Conservation International through their “Amazon Verde – Future Forests” project which is supported by the French Government.

The purpose of the funding was to conduct a population assessment of the Hoary-throated Spinetail (Synallaxis kollari) and the Rio Branco Antbird (Cercomacra carbonaria) along the Ireng River and Takutu Rivers in the Rupununi, Guyana.

Before this survey, no population count of either species had ever been done in Guyana. The last population assessment was done in Brazil in 2006 but it is not known if these population estimates are still accurate or if their populations have decreased.

The Hoary-throated Spinetail (top) and the Rio Branco Antbird (bottom)

Both species are endemic to a small stretch of gallery forest along the border of Guyana and Brazil and can be found nowhere else in the world. Both species are listed as “critically endangered” and likely face extinction if conservation actions are not administered. Further, these are Guyana’s only two critically endangered species that can be found on land.

The population of the Hoary-throated Spinetail is thought to be around 5000 individuals while the Rio Branco Antbird population is around 15,000 individuals. Their main threat is from habitat destruction that is mainly happening on the Brazil side of the border.

SRCS conducted the population assessment over a one-month period by conducting an intense river expedition.

The team on the Ireng River during the survey

From mid-July to mid-August 2021, the team travelled up and down the Ireng and Takutu Rivers implementing a scientific methodology to estimate the population of both species. The team also assessed the threats the species face.

The team included expedition leader (Jeremy Melville), scientific advisor from the USA (Dr. Brian O’Shea) and eight SRCS rangers (Angelbert Johnny and Frank Johnny from Sawariwau Village, Asaph Wilson, Nathaneel Wilson and Samuel Cyril from Katoonarib Village, Flavian Thomas from Rupunau Village, Dereck David from Sand Creek Village and Abraham Ignace from Shulinab Village).

After completing the expedition, the team found a number of discoveries. Of the two species, the team counted more of the Hoary-throated spinetail and not as many of the Rio Branco Antbird – which is surprising as the Rio Branco has a greater population.

The team also witnessed lots of habitat destruction for the homes of both species that has occurred mainly due to fire and agricultural development. The reason for the fire is unknown at this time and the agriculture is mainly small to medium scale farmers, primarily on the Brazil side of the border.

SRCS rangers during a field survey

SRCS said it is concerned that if these threats continue without any intervention, that the population of both species could continue to decline and they could eventually go extinct.

Based on the results, SRCS has received more funding From Re:Wild and Conservation International to create a Community Conservation Management Zone to protect the two species.

To create the zone, SRCS are engaging local land owners, government ministries and national agencies to create the boundary, rules and monitoring system that will comprise the zone. It is hoped that once created, the zone will help to reduce the threats facing the two species and allow for their population recovery in the area.

Just recently, the SRCS led the French Ambassador to Guyana, Nicolas de Lacoste, on a trip to find the critically endangered Hoary-throated Spinetail and the Rio Branco Antbird. The Ambassador was fortunate to see not one but two Rio Branco Antbirds and a Hoary-throated Spinetail. The French Government has been supporting the project to protect the two birds through Conservation International Guyana’s “Our Future Forests – Amazonia Verde” project.

Non-Resident French Ambassador to Guyana Nicolas de Lacoste (left) during his birdwatching expedition in the Rupununi

Speaking with this publication, SRCS Programme Coordinator Neal Millar emphasised that “these two birds are extremely important for the Rupununi. Not only are they both important for the local ecosystem and wildlife diversity, they also have massive potential for the local tourism industry in the Rupununi.”

“Until now, the main attractions of the Rupununi have been the Red Siskin, Sun Parakeet, Toco Toucans, Jabiru Storks and many others. But these two birds, as they can only be found here on the border of Guyana and Brazil, and nowhere else in the world, are a major unique attraction. They can be promoted to increase the Rupununi’s growing tourism market. This comes at a time when the Rupununi is looking to bounce back with tourism after the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he added.

Members of the SRCS are primarily local indigenous people of the South Rupununi. Their projects are focused on preserving the environment, wildlife and culture of Region Nine through research, community-based conservation management and environmental education.

The team recording data during the survey

SRCS is currently implementing projects to conserve of the Red Siskin (Spinus cucullatus), the Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) and the Yellow-spotted River Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) in the South Rupununi as well as facilitating the implementation of an environmental education curriculum, monitoring the impact of fire on wildlife and facilitating traditional knowledge classes to help preserve the culture of the indigenous people of the Rupununi.