Mission LifeForce is a growing international movement of Earth Protectors based on a legal document, the Earth Protectors Trust Fund document. It is like a crowdfund, a petition and a legal Trust all rolled into one, and it’s extremely powerful. In fact, it’s the missing piece – making climate and ecological justice possible where nothing else has. For more information, click here.
The 2017 Wilderness Writing Award goes to American Gretel Ehrlich who has had some incredible life experiences, including being struck by lightening, that she wrote about in A Match to the Heart. She has written about her travels and experiences and is passionately supportive of the environment. The Wilderness Writing Award is bestowed every two years to a living writer for a Lifetime Achievement of work that is meaningful and about wild nature, the environment, or the land. The award is co-sponsored by The Wild Foundation, Fulcrum Publishing, and the International League of Conservation Writers.
Ehrlich was born on a horse ranch in California and was educated at Bennington College (Vermont) and the UCLA film school (California). She began writing fulltime in 1978. Annie Dillard who praised Ehrlich’s 1985 book, The Solace of Open, said: “Wyoming has found its Whitman.” Ehrlich has written several other books including Heart Mountain; Islands, the Universe, and Home; Yellowstone: Land of Fire and Ice; John Muir, Nature’s Visionary; In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape; and Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami. Ehrlich has also written essays, short stories, and poems. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, the Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Life, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, and Audubon, among others.
Verena Grubler from the European Wilderness Society (Austria) is shown with Bob Baron and Patty Maher when she stopped by the Colorado (USA) office of the International League of Conservation Writers in mid-February.
Recently, Verena Gruber from the European Wilderness Society, headquartered in Tamsweg, Austria, visited the International League of Conservation Writers at our office in Golden, Colorado. Learning more about each other’s organizations we also discussed how our two organizations can work together on future projects. Gruber is making her way across the U.S. and meeting key people in environmental and conservation positions in the U.S. government, NGOs and private foundations. Her three-month trip will last until March.
The International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Montana recently included films about or by ILCW members. Clay Bolt (ILCW member, USA) was featured in a new short “Clay Bolt” by director Chema Domenech where the conservation photographer talks about photographing bugs and other creatures smaller than your finger. Also, Neil Losen (LCW member, USA) had two films included in the festival that he directed or co-directed: “The Path Back” and “Laws of the Lizard”, winner of Best Broadcast Film that he co-directed with Nate Dappen. For more information click here.
The Importance of Invertebrates is highlighted in a recent blog post at No Water No Life. Check it out here.
By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director)
Part 1 of a 3-part series
The Clean Water Act was created by the U. S. Congress to ensure that those in the U.S. have access to safe drinking water. This blog series will highlight the threats that spurred the creation of this act (citing specific issues in NWNL case-study watersheds); a definition of its regulations; and an analysis of its implementation and implications. Below is the first post in this series which outlines how this Act came to be. It continues to specifically depict existing threats in the Mississippi River Basin (a NWNL case study watershed) that helped shape the Act and those that are addressed in the Act. The second blog in this series will detail existing threats and those addressed by the Act that are in the other 2 NWNL North American case study watersheds: the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Basin, and New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin. The third blog will discuss general health threats across the U.S. that also clearly highlighted the need for the Clean Water Act. Read More.
Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival
In 2017, the heat waves, extreme wild fires, and flooding around the world confirmed beyond doubt that climate disruption is now a full-blown emergency. We have entered Churchill’s “period of consequences”, yet governments have simply watched the disasters magnify, while rushing ahead with new pipelines and annual trillions in fossil fuel subsidies.
This new book by Dr. Peter D. Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth show that governments simply cannot say they did not know. The events we are seeing today have been consistently forecast ever since the First Assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was signed by all governments back in 1990, and which has been described as the best evaluation project ever designed.
Unprecedented Crime first lays out the culpability of corporations, governmental, political and religious bodies, and especially the media through their failure to report or act on the climate emergency. No emergency response has even been contemplated by wealthy high-emitting national governments. Extreme weather reporting never even hints at the need to address climate change ― even though it is producing wars and migrations among the world’s poorest, those who have contributed the least to global warming.
Yet, independently of governments, scores of proven zero-carbon game changers have been coming online all over the world. These exciting technologies, described in the book, are now able to power both household electricity and energy-dense heavy industry. We already have the technical solutions to the CO2 problem. With these solutions we can act in time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to near-zero within 20 years.
These willful crimes against life itself by negligent governments, the oblivious media and an insouciant civil society are crimes that everyday citizens can readily grasp ― and then take to the streets and to the courts to protest on behalf of their children and grand-children. This thoroughly researched and highly-documented book will show the how.
By Carolyne Tomno (ILCW member, Kenya)
A major campaign to end the dumping of waste in our oceans is underway. For too long the ocean has been treated as bottomless dumping ground for plastic, sewage and other waste.
Chile, Oman, Sri Lanka and South Africa have joined UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign against marine litter and ocean pollution, announcing measures including plastic bag bans, new marine reserves and drives to increase recycling. The four countries announced their support during the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.
The head of the UN Environment Erik Solheim has hailed the countries for supporting clean seas. He says the countries are showing the leadership needed in order to end this abuse, and protect the marine resources on which millions depend on for their livelihoods.
The Minister of Environment for Sri Lanka, Anura Dissanayake, says the country, is taking bold action to turn the tide on plastics. We have banned plastic bags and are now working to reduce the number of plastic bottles in the country. We want to be a green and blue beacon of hope in Asia and do everything we can to keep the seas clean.
South Africa will step up its beach cleanup program and prioritize action on tyres, electronic waste, lighting and paper and packaging. This includes extended producer responsibility for plastic packaging.
CLEAN SEAS CAMPAIGN
Nearly 40 countries from Kenya to Canada and Indonesia to Brazil have joined the #CleanSeas campaign, which aims to counter the torrents of plastic trash that are degrading our oceans and endangering the life they sustain. The countries account for more than half of the world’s coastline.
Legislation to press companies and citizens to change their wasteful habits is often part of broader government strategies to foster responsible production and consumption – a key step in the global shift toward sustainable development.
Humans have already dumped billions of tonnes of plastic, and we are adding it to the ocean at a rate of 8 million tonnes a year. As well as endangering fish, birds and other creatures who mistake it for food or become entangled in it, plastic waste has also entered the human food chain with health consequences that are not yet fully understood. It also harms tourist destinations and provides breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying diseases including dengue and Zika.
The #CleanSeas campaign aims to “turn the tide on plastic” by inspiring action from Governments, businesses and individuals on ocean pollution.
By Rebecca Lawton ILCW member (USA)
Once oases supported human evolution. Now, our addiction to fountains, pools and palms threatens our survival
Seen from the air, the single verdant parcel of land with its straight borders and sharp edges resembles a green postage stamp pasted on a great expanse of manila envelope. Inside the boundary, a screen of trees hides a palatial estate, acres of emerald turf, a paved circular driveway, and an extensive array of tumbling, marble fountains. Outside the rectangle, a hot, rock-strewn fan of tan alluvium extends unvegetated and unwatered for half a kilometre to another such parcel, then another, then another. Toward the city centre eight kilometres away, residences cluster closer together but emulate the lush feel of the outlying estates with their surfeit of palm trees, water features and improbably green turf.
Downtown, a shimmering strip of casinos, restaurants, luxury shops and lounges lures visitors indoors off the sunburnt street. Fountains and gazing pools convey a sense of plentiful water, as if the strip were supplied by healthy dousings of rainfall. One cannot tell by looking that the city, Las Vegas, normally receives less than 11 centimetres of rainfall a year in a climate where summer temperatures regularly soar above 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). To build an oasis at a desert resort requires more sleight of hand than a card shark playing a casino. Yet Las Vegas, like other arid communities, routinely pumps water for just this purpose from underground or outlying systems – in this case, the Colorado River impounded in Lake Mead, a reservoir 50 kilometres away.
The green succour of true oases has been part of humankind’s experience for millennia, occurring where precious below-ground springs and aquifers nearly reach the surface. For centuries, oases have marked the locations of communities and trade routes. In recent generations we’ve extended the oasis habit into our built environment, pumping water into faux oases – such as Las Vegas – to complement what nature provides. But our human impulse to convert the desert, to build oases wherever our surroundings are arid, has produced an 11th-hour crisis of water mismanagement and shortages worldwide.
A landscape deemed forsaken, ‘desert’ derives from the Latin desertum, ‘something left waste’. In the geographer’s lexicon, a desert is an area receiving less than 25 centimetres of rainfall a year. The world’s largest are the polar deserts, each approximately 14 million square kilometres of ice, snow and tundra in the Arctic or of bedrock in the Antarctic. Next comes the Sahara, 9 million square kilometres of gravel plain, sand and dune spread over 13 countries and covering a quarter of the African continent. After that, the Arabian Desert comprises 2.5 million square kilometres and reaches into six countries. Equal to one-fifth the area of the continents, often inhospitable due to extreme temperatures and lack of water, deserts are also the settings where natural oases, some of the most appealing land- and water-forms on the planet, can be found.
The moist, fertile zone of the oasis consists of a central pool of open water surrounded by a ring of water-dependent shrubs and trees, notably palms, which are in turn encircled by an outlying transition zone to desert plants. In contrast to the vast expanse of the world’s deserts, the oasis ecosystem is relatively minute, rare and precious, the largest measured in dozens and hundreds, rather than millions, of square kilometres.
Oases figure prominently in human survival and evolution. The earliest people lived and hunted around surface water, matching their ranges to the persistent springs and pools that also attracted wildlife and watered vegetative sources of food. Paleontologists studying early evidence of Homo sapiens at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania found that our forebears probably relied on isolated oases when other potable water became scarce during times of drought.
Oases also formed bridges between larger bodies of water, anthropologists hypothesise, allowing humans to migrate within and ultimately out of Africa. Natural oases determined the trajectory of trade routes and desert settlements. From the sure signs of underground water signalled by a grove of fan palms in the Sahara to the early dwellings along great rivers on the Colorado Plateau in North America, water determined the locations of communities and pathways among them.
The longest known network of trade routes, the 7,400-kilometre Silk Road across Africa, Asia and Europe, traced its course from water hole to water hole, relying on oasis communities such as Turpan in China and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The Darb el-Arba camel route in middle Egypt and Sudan, the Moroccan caravan route from the Niger to Tangier, and the aboriginal foot trails in the Mojave Desert in the American southwest were all oasis-linked routes that otherwise would have been impassable.
Over time, cultures integrated the oasis experience of rest and recreation into the built world. In ancient Rome, thermae (large-scale imperial baths) and balneae (small-scale public and private baths) were created through elaborate systems of aqueducts leading from rivers and springs to most towns and villages. The public baths were the community centres of their time, where citizens could meet for conversation, soaks, massage and exercise. The Latin adage for the healthful properties of water, ‘In Aqua Sanitas’, conveyed the philosophy that water immersion for recuperation and rejuvenation was central to good health and even good citizenship.
In the tradition of Rome, resort towns elsewhere became popular, their engineered waterworks full of healing waters from naturally occurring mineral springs and shallow stores of groundwater. The community of Spa, Belgium, gave its name to a soaking custom replicated worldwide: toplice in Slovenia, bain in France, Bad in Germany, fürdő in Hungary, città thermale in Italy, hot springs in America – destinations that were and are cultivated to offer respite to those who want to ‘take the waters’.
In arid regions, recreating the experience of healing waters requires some doing. Water must be pumped from a natural source up inclines, over artificial ledges, often into buildings or fenced areas where cement-rimmed swimming pools emulate the grass-sloped natural pool. Resort gardens are made to order, their fully mature trees installed by cranes and work crews, their water needs met through irrigation and timed sprinkler systems. The hot dry desert of the Las Vegas valley, one of the world’s greatest faux oases, serves up a modern-day mirage – the fantasy that we can keep taking large quantities of water from elsewhere to make the desert green, without paying the price.
The oasis has beckoned and tantalised us for millennia, offering the weary desert traveller a dip in an open pool, the green shelter of palm fronds and the relief of shade and refuge. These are not just creature comforts; they also enhance health.
As it happens, water immersion also enhances the function of the brain, by improving the ability of blood to transport oxygen and nutrients to it. In a 2014 study from the University of Western Australia published in the American Journal of Physiology, subjects immersed heart-deep for 10 minutes in a tank of water at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) experienced greater cerebral blood flow over the duration of immersion.
Similarly, an oasis’ green foliage is likely to promote wellbeing. Testing what nature‑lovers have long intuited to be true, researchers in environmental psychology are measuring the electrical response of the brain to green space. An article on the ‘urban brain’ in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 reports that subjects exhibited ‘lower frustration’ when moving into natural areas and ‘higher engagement’ when moving out. Compared with brain response to other zones, such as shopping or commercial districts, the improved mental state measured in subjects moving along paths in green zones showed the potential for restoration and recovery from stress.
The oasis also helps us stay focused. The common experience of feeling a kind of brain fog in the hot sun isn’t just imagined; it’s real and measurable. Studies have shown that mammals, including humans, require a two- or three-fold increase in natural evaporation to maintain reasonable body temperature when exposed to desert sun; conversely, slipping into shade increases performance and physiological measures. Getting to an oasis at the end of a day spent in desert heat fulfils the simple and necessary function of preventing overheating. Brain temperature stays about 0.2 degrees Celsius higher than the rest of the body, says a 2011 study from the University of Copenhagen. In hot environments with no relief, we become unable or unwilling to continue walking or performing other forms of exercise. The simple break of an oasis can keep us on track.
Given all this, it makes sense that the resort or spa, the modern emulation of the ancient oasis, adds therapeutic treatment to the natural benefits of water, plants and refuge. Some benefit comes through stimulation of endorphins, morphine-like molecules associated with the experience of deep pleasure. Candace Pert, the late American neuroscientist and pharmacologist, discovered that endorphins attached to opiate receptors not just in the body, but also the brain. Ultimately, an entire system of hormones and receptors was discovered in neuroscience labs, powering the nascent field of psychoneuroimmunology – the study of an interconnected brain-body loop driving mood, health and disease. The ‘way in which [chemicals] circulate through the body, finding their target receptors in regions far more distant [from the brain] than had ever been thought possible,’ Pert wrote in her book, The Molecules of Emotion (1997), ‘made the brain communication system resemble the endocrine system, whose hormones can travel the length and breadth of our bodies.’
Poised to deliver that sense of wellbeing to the length and breadth of our bodies and brains are faux oases, today represented by the $40 billion resort and spa industry, one of the fastest-growing sectors of leisure travel worldwide. Wherever there are spas, travellers can find water, in whirlpools, steam rooms, fountains, mud baths and other assorted features, all in the service of relaxation, rejuvenation and health.
In arid regions, the bulk of water is, of course, already directed to agriculture and urban use. Yet desert biomes also host tourists, who come for built oases, above all else. In 2007, the architect Aziza Chaouni at the University of Toronto conducted an investigation in the Sahara Desert, where a resurgence of tourism in the 1980s ‘induced both the extension of existing colonial accommodations and the creation of new large hotels, a phenomenon which not only drained the scarce water resources but also shifted local economies from agricultural to service‑based’.
Installing greenery and engineered water features to create resort complexes stretches already-exhausted water budgets in Dubai, where 2.4 million residential users consuming 492 litres per capita daily long ago outgrew freshwater supply. A destination for foreign tourists and workers, Dubai has the advantage of being a wealthy seaside resort that can meet its water needs through desalination plants. Though roughly twice as expensive as water from recycling or impounding, desalination is still an option in oceanfront locales.
Land-locked Las Vegas, on the other hand, is restricted to freshwater supplies. With 603,000 residents inside the city limits, more than 2 million in the greater metropolitan area, and a tourism-based economy, the area’s once-adequate surface and groundwater no longer meets its needs.
The Colorado River fulfils 86 per cent of the Las Vegas valley water portfolio, apportioned and piped annually to the state in the amount of 500,000 acre-feet (617 billion litres). The river allotment is supplemented by groundwater, which contributes another 10 per cent to metropolitan and urban use; recycled water makes up the last 4 per cent. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which controls supply, estimates that casinos and resorts use 32,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water (7 per cent of the apportionment) and 4,000 acre-feet of groundwater from private wells, or 36,000 acre-feet in all.
A large quantity of this water – some 60 per cent of all water delivered to homes and businesses in Las Vegas – goes to irrigate landscaping and create water features, according to the Water Authority. An estimated 70 per cent of residential use and 20 per cent of casino and spa use is applied outdoors on turf, landscaping and swimming pools.
In fact, in Nevada, most outdoor use is consumptive – that is, fully used and lost to the system. As a result, groundwater has declined more than 100 metres and associated land has sunk several metres. Resulting earthquakes, irreversible ground collapse and property settling have caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage in the Las Vegas valley alone.
Similarly extensive pumping of groundwater from the San Joaquin Valley aquifer system in California for agricultural and urban use has ‘caused groundwater levels to decline’, according to the United States Geological Survey, ‘resulting in as much as 28 feet [8.5 metres] of land subsidence’. Once an aquifer is drawn down, the underground space for it closes up, and the land’s ability to hold water in its best, natural location – the cool underground – is eliminated as an option.
Pulling surface water from rivers also puts civilisation at risk. When flow is reduced too much, the water remaining in streams can no longer sustain native aquatic life or even the habitat critical to climate resilience for a range of species, including humans.
Taken to an extreme, mismanaging water supply destabilises cultures. The Syrian refugee crisis can be understood as a direct result of water instability driven by a changing climate. According to a 2014 United Nations report on drought in the Middle East, an estimated 800,000 people have lost their livelihoods due to water mismanagement in the region. ‘Water scarcity is forcing people off the land,’ said Hussein Amery, a Middle Eastern water management expert at the Colorado School of Mines, in an interview with National Public Radio in 2015. ‘These refugees are very much water refugees, a product of water scarcity in the region.’
In the American West, much of the water mismanagement that has drawn down stores stems from the creation of the faux oasis, what the late water resources consultant Marc Reisner called the ‘Cadillac desert’. ‘In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money,’ he wrote in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986). ‘And it literally does, as it leaps 3,000 feet across the Tehachapi Mountains in gigantic siphons to slake the thirst of Los Angeles, as it is shoved 1,000 feet out of Colorado River canyons to water Phoenix and Palm Springs and the irrigated lands around them.’
It is the 11th hour at the oasis – 11:59 pm, in truth – past time to act. With the faux oasis a fact of life, and water a dwindling key resource increasingly at risk, our best next step is to cut consumptive use.
The Pacific Institute, a research and outreach organisation in Oakland, California that ‘creates and advances solutions to the world’s most pressing water challenges’, evaluates water use for improved conservation and sustainability. The institute’s analysis of resort consumption concluded that increasing water needs can be met with no change in guests’ water use habits (and presumably no decline in their quality of experience) if hotels and spas install technologies such as water-saving showerheads, low water-use toilets, and upgraded appliances in laundries.
Even more can be done. The Green Spa Network of Sebastopol, California, a leader in the effort to reduce the water footprint, recommends that spas use native plants – trees, shrubs and herbs naturally found in the arid and semi‑arid environment being landscaped. A founding member of that network, the Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California, has not only changed landscaping but also installed a greywater system on site. The system, which processes and recycles wash water from laundry right at the spa, has cut water use at Osmosis by 3,800 litres per day. In a state where severe drought is in its fourth year, wildfires are burning in increasing size and number, and reservoirs are depleted, all water savings count.
In California in general, simply re-landscaping residential, commercial and institutional gardens with native plants and other drought-tolerant species could reduce water use by 1.3 million acre-feet annually. This reduction, according to the Pacific Institute and National Resource Defense Council, would be ‘equivalent to a statewide per capita use of 30 gallons per day [114 litres]’ when the current use is 140 gallons per day [530 litres].
‘At home, widespread adoption of water-saving appliances and fixtures, along with replacement of lawns with water-efficient landscapes,’ says the Pacific Institute, ‘could reduce total residential water use by 40 to 60 per cent, saving 2.2 million to 3.6 million acre-feet per year,’ for savings of up to 5.2 million acre-feet per year overall.
Our emotional desire for oasis might never leave us, but if the natural oasis is to endure, the faux oasis might have to hold sway only in our minds. Water in the natural world – in wild rivers rather than engineered canals, natural lakes rather than reservoirs, true falls rather than recirculating fountains – is the fix. Draining our actual water supply to create the faux oasis endangers the true refuge and puts us all at risk.
Rebecca Lawton is a fluvial geologist and former river guide who writes about water in the West. Her latest book is Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on Water (2014). She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
By Donna Mulvenna ILCW member (French Guiana)
It is a calm sunny day when I set off to paddle on the watery expanse of my world. As I lower the canoe into the river, I can’t help but marvel at the reflection of the mangrove trees reaching out across the surface of the water. The sky is a glorious periwinkle blue, the clouds high and fluffy and the cooling breeze creates a pleasant tailwind.
A short while later I watch as a dark shadow stretches ahead enveloping the canoe and the first of the raindrops bounce off the deck. I know from experience I have only seconds to take cover as this is the Amazon rainforest where rain is more than a shower or sprinkle-type affair. The deluge hits me as suddenly and as ferociously as a freight train. Within seconds I look like I have just stepped out of a swimming pool. The force of it is quite remarkable and it is an absolute delight even when I am trying to make some headway in it.
I watch the water pooling in the bottom of the canoe and wonder which one of us will triumph. Will the rain stop as suddenly as it started or will I be forced to stop and empty the canoe? I tuck my chin in close to my chest, a flow of water streaming from the peak of my cap and bouncing off my nose. There isn’t another soul on the river, not of the human species anyway, which is not unusual on these heavily jungle-fringed rivers where a lack of places to rest make them unattractive to weekend mavericks on jet skis.
Occasionally, I startle a lone fisherman in a weathered wooden fishing canoe and I wonder what he must think of my bright fluorescent green and gold carbon sprint canoe on steroids. Sometimes I invite fishermen to try it out or to race me a short distance, a suggestion that is met with great hilarity and vigorous shaking of their head.
One species I rarely sneak up on is the Red Howler monkeys. My appearance sets in motion a series of deafening roars that reverberate across the jungle letting every living creature within a three-mile radius know of my approach. However, there are times when I drift along the river undetected and enjoy the most spectacular displays of wildlife in action.
There is something quite remarkable about coming face to face with wildlife. It is that moment when you and the animal stop, look at each other and share some sort of connection. This is when time slows down, you become oblivious to the outside world, and you are lost in nature.
Most animals flee in surprise when they see me, but sometimes, certain animals, especially those with the bravado of a fox, come closer. The human brain is an amazing entity that works on a database of pre-existing information. So, when the first thing I registered were black stripes and a round face my brain said, “Mmm. Interesting! An extinct Tasmanian Tiger, crossed with a raccoon with the demeanor of a fox living in French Guiana?”
The novelty of seeing a human paddling down the river on a brightly coloured log was enough to tempt the curious crab dog (Cerdocyon thous) from its den. It was as inquisitive about me, as I was about it. It looked at the canoe and tilted its head thoughtfully as if to say, “I haven’t seen one quite like that before.” Then it took a good look at me, made that magic moment of eye contact, and after ten seconds or so, trotted its stout little legs off into the undergrowth.
As its name suggests, the crab dog eats crabs, especially during the wet season. Other times it eats rodents, birds, turtle eggs, fruit, eggs, crustaceans, insects, and lizards. About the only thing it doesn’t eat is livestock, but mind-bogglingly, farmers shoot them anyway. They have a fluffy tale that stands erect when they are excited, but fortunately for them, their pelt isn’t as stimulating, so they have been largely spared from hunters’ sights, unlike others in their genus who were made into some type of garment and are now extinct.
Wild rivers are where fantasy meets reality and miracles absolutely do happen. I almost leaped from my canoe with fright when a Giant otter materialized like the periscope of a surfacing submarine only meters from my boat to give me an angry warning snort. I stopped dead. The otter dived and resurfaced twenty meters away. When he had calculated I was at a safe distance he turned and hot tailed it after his family.
Family life is important to Giant otters which explains why they have few predators. An anaconda, caiman or jaguar is less likely to attack a young otter if there is a chance it will be confronted by an entire family.
Male otters swim like torpedoes, are strong, curious and brave. But it is the alpha female otter who is the undisputable Queen of the river regulating the hunt, resting and sleeping periods. To the outsider, it might look as if Giant otters in French Guiana lead a charmed life, and it is true that they spend much of their day playing, kicking back and fishing.
The Guiana Shield region offers an ideal habitat as it accounts for as much as 10-15% of the world’s freshwater, has the largest number of pristine or near pristine river basins on Earth, enforces a strict protection policy, and is largely uninhabited by man.
However, Giant otters remain in the “endangered” category of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, meaning that their numbers are expected to halve by 2030. No longer hunted for their chocolate coloured, velvet-like fur as they were from the ‘50’s to ‘70’s, they now face a new threat of habitat destruction and pollution mostly due to the gold rush that has swept across most regions of South America.
It isn’t just seeing wildlife from the water that is exciting. Stumbling upon the tell-tale signs of how wildlife goes about its daily business is exciting too, especially seeing the footprints of ocelots, and the trails of capybara and agouti, respectively the largest and cutest rodents of the rainforest.
The more time I spend exploring the rivers, the more I feel connected to them and the life they sustain. Yet, despite my best efforts to drift along the rivers unnoticed, I am yet to spot the formidable Ninja cat of the Amazon.
But I know, without any doubt, a jaguar would have spotted me.