University of Vermont

Operation Wallacea Research/Internship, Guyana

Large fish

Ever since I first developed a passion for nature sometime around the first grade, it has been my dream to visit the Amazon rainforest. I was able to turn that dream into reality this past summer by volunteering for an organization called Operation Wallacea. Opwall is an organization that conducts conservation research through academic partnerships in various sites around the world. After a guest presentation in my wildlife management class last year, I learned of a new research site that Opwall had just opened in Guyana, right in the heart of the Amazon. I wasted no time enlisting in the expedition and the rest is history.

While it wasn’t cheap (the cost after airfare, equipment, and other fees totaled somewhere around $4,000), it was by far the best investment I’ve made in my life. I was in awe from the moment my plane touched down in the capital city, Georgetown, until my tearful farewell to the fourteen other volunteers and researchers who had become my family four weeks later. For somebody who loves nature, it’s almost overwhelming once you leave the city limits and enter the forest. There really never was a dull moment in the jungle. Even during free time between various daily research surveys, there was always something to be admired, whether it was a troop of monkeys making their presence known as they passed overhead through the canopy, one of the several hundred species of birds passing through camp, a colony of leaf-cutter ants with a parade of freshly cut bits of leaf, or even just the amazing diversity of plants and trees; my favorite being the walking tree, a tree which sits atop thin, finger-like roots above ground that die off on the shadiest side of the tree while new roots extend towards the light, allowing the tree to slowly move through the forest to compete for light resources. It was never hard to find something worthy of a photograph or two, in fact I used my camera so much that it died halfway through the expedition. Luckily a fellow volunteer had brought an extra so I was able to swap SIM cards and continue shooting.

My Guyana adventure wasn’t all fun and exploration though. We worked seven days a week, often all day long and on some nights, even worked all night long. The typical day started off at 5:30 a.m. to the alarm of red howler monkeys, followed by a quick breakfast and cup of tea before heading off to do surveys for the morning. There were a variety of survey methods that we conducted to target a wide array of wildlife including birds, amphibians, reptiles, bats, and large mammals. We applied four different survey methods in recording bird diversity. First, we ran a line of 18 mist nets every day from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., with net checks every half hour. This targeted understory birds which are often hard to detect otherwise. Secondly, we did a series of 6 point counts every morning to monitor mid-level and canopy species. Third, we monitored for raptors and larger species such as parrots, macaws, and large terrestrial species using 3 kilometer transects, which were also used to monitor large mammal and monkey abundances. Lastly, we monitored wetland species using river transects by allowing boats to drift downstream for a set period of time or distance, which was also a method used to monitor mammals. Bats were monitored using a series of 18 mist nets that were run throughout the night. Abundances were measured using mark and recapture. Reptiles and amphibians were surveyed using transects that were conducted both in mid-late morning and at night. The herpetology work was generally just a catalogue of biodiversity, so any herps that were encountered throughout the day were also included in the study. There were also several occasions that we searched for boas, caiman, anacondas, and other herps in boats at night. DNA samples were also collected from each of the herps to assist in a genetic diversity study through the University of Mississippi.

Given that our expedition was the first year of research for the Guyana site, our research objective was to collect the first year’s worth of baseline data for biodiversity and species abundances at four different sites in the Iwokrama Forest and surrounding regions, in particular the Surama Forest. This baseline data is to be used to understand changes in the Iwokrama and Surama forests in relation to anthropogenic impacts, climate change, and climate fluctuations.

Not only did I gather a tremendous amount of experience with various methods of research, but I also learned a lot from the people I met. Over the course of the four weeks I was there, I developed a family bond with the other volunteers and scientists who accompanied us. We came from different parts of the world, most were from the U.K and Canada, but by the end of our time together we had a connection that was much deeper than just coworkers on a research project. Still, it wasn’t these people who I learned the most from; it was our guides. The men who guided our expedition were local Macusi people who knew everything about the rainforest. It was fascinating living with people who got nearly everything they needed from the forest and could identify every tree, plant, bird, fish, and insect you pointed at. We came from such different worlds, and we were constantly learning from each other, although I’ll admit I certainly had much more to learn from them.

I was only in Guyana for four weeks, but the things I experienced during that time will stay with me forever. I dreamed of going to the Amazon for most of my life, and my trip last summer exceeded my dreams in a way that can’t be explained. Anyone considering a career in conservation, wildlife, or natural resources, or anyone who has ever thought about traveling abroad should not hesitate to jump on an opportunity like the one I took. There are plenty of opportunities out there to get hands-on experience in exotic locations like Peru, Egypt, Madagascar, Indonesia, Honduras, and South Africa through volunteer programs with academic partnerships that it’s just not worth passing up. Volunteering as a research assistant in Guyana has been the best decision I’ve made in my life, and it’s something everyone should get to experience.