The Amazon: land of water, trees and life (Part 1)

March 22, 2017 10:39 am

Guiana is derived from an Amerindian language and means “land of many waters”. It was formerly known from west to east as Spanish Guiana (now Guayana a region in Venezuela), British Guiana (Guyana), Dutch Guiana (Suriname), Portuguese Guiana (Amapá now a disputed piece of land between French Guiana and Brazil) and French Guiana. The latter is an overseas department of France where the inhabitants are EU citizens and bills are paid in Euro. It lies in the north-eastern side of South America in the Caribbean basin. It borders Brazil to the east and south and Suriname to the west. Its 83,534 km2 area has a very low population density of only three inhabitants per km2, with half of its 244,118 inhabitants living in the metropolitan area of Cayenne, its capital.

On the border with Brazil

The area was originally inhabited by Native Americans. The first French establishment is recorded in 1503 but the French presence didn’t really become durable until 1643 and the foundation of Cayenne. Guiana then became a slave colony and saw its population increase until the official abolition of slavery at the time of the French revolution. Guiana temporarily became a French department in 1797 but is gradually transformed into a penal colony with the establishment of a network of camps and penitentiaries spread over the coast, where prisoners are sentenced to forced labour. The first French effort to colonise Guiana in 1763 failed utterly when tropical diseases and climate killed all but 2,000 of the initial 12,000 settlers. During its existence, France transported approximately 56,000 prisoners to Devil’s Island. Fewer than 10% survived their sentence. Of local interest the French tried to entice some Maltese to take up residence in French Guiana but the enterprise was short lived.

In 1964 the French President Charles de Gaulle decided to construct a space-travel base in French Guiana. It was intended to replace the Sahara base in Algeria and stimulate economic growth in French Guiana. The department was considered particularly suitable for the purpose because it is located close to the equator and has extensive access to the ocean as a buffer zone. The Guiana Space Centre, located a short distance along the coast from the town of Kourou, has grown considerably since the initial launches of the Véronique rockets. It is now part of the European space industry and has had commercial success with such launches as the Ariane 4 and Ariane 5.

One of the data collecting stations, caravan and mothing equipment

French Guiana is home to different ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests, coastal mangroves, savannahs, inselbergs (high rocky outcrops) and many types of wetlands. The country has a high level of biodiversity in terms of both flora and fauna. This is due to the presence of old-growth forests (i.e., ancient/primary forests), which are biodiversity hotspots. The rainforests of French Guiana provide shelter for many species during dry periods and terrestrial glaciation. These forests are protected by a national park (the Guiana Amazonian Park) and six additional nature reserves. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the European Union (EU) have recommended special efforts to protect these areas.  Over 92% of the land is covered in forests and with a total population of some 244,118 one would expect very little negative environmental impacts. Unfortunately this is not so, greed is stripping the rain forests of French Guiana. Legal and illegal gold prospecting has already led to the clearance of hundreds if not thousands of acres of virgin forest.

No less than 5,500 plant species have been recorded, including more than a thousand trees along with 700 species of birds, 177 species of mammals, over 500 species of fish – 45% of which are endemic – and 109 species of amphibians. It is hardly surprising that many species of flora and fauna have guianensis or cayensis in their scientific names, many of which have been described by French taxonomists.

Our visits

The National Museum of Natural History, Mdina in collaboration with the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris and GEPOG (the Ornithological Society of FG) has been conducting a series of field trips with no less than four trips in the last seven years. A preliminary trip was carried out in 2007 by a team of Maltese Entomologists who studied the Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) of the coastal belt of FG. In the following years, the NMNH joined the team and four more visits were organised namely in October/November 2011, August 2012, October/November 2014 and most recently in January/February 2017. The aim of our visit to French Guiana was three fold:

  1. To continue compiling data and specimens of the nocturnal lepidopterofauna of the coastal zone of French Guiana.
  1. To record and document all the birds seen and handled during the survey
  1. To capture, identify, measure, photograph and release all the bats encountered

Transport and accommodation on board a caravan meant that we could maximise our time in the field.

Two Mercury vapour lamps were used to attract moths onto a pair of white flying sheets, while mist‐nets was used in most cases to capture birds and bats. These were measured, weighed, photographed and released. Nights with long intervals between heavy downpours proved to be the most fruitful, resulting in a large variety and quantity of insects being attracted to the lights. In turn, on such nights several undetermined species of bats were observed feeding on the moths and other flying insects close to the light traps.

By John J Borg, Senior Curator Natural History Unit at Heritage Malta and ex BirdLife Malta Council Secretary