Exploring for Botanical Gold in Venezuela’s Lost World

Exploring for Botanical Gold in Venezuela’s Lost World

by Bruce K. Holst, Director of Plant Collections

Selby Gardens recently joined forces with Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program and the La Salle Foundation of Venezuela to conduct an intensive biological and ecological survey of a southern Venezuelan river system threatened by gold and copper mining operations. This river system drains the Sierra de Lema, a mountain range that forms the northern flank of the “Lost World.” The Lost World was made famous by Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800s and is known for its spectacular table mountains, for Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, and for thousands of plants found nowhere else on earth.

With illegal gold mining rampant in the area and a proposed 2,400-foot deep open-pit gold and copper mine in the final stages of permitting, a team of 25 biologists from many different countries was assembled to conduct an assessment of the region’s flora and fauna. I was invited to join Venezuelan botanists Angel Fernandez and Reina Gonto to conduct the botanical portion of the inventory. Other disciplines represented were herpetology, ornithology, mammalogy, entomology, limnology, geology, ichthyology, and the study of aquatic invertebrates. The support staff included cooks, a paramedic, local guides, security personnel, a coordinator of logistics, and a film team who captured our work for a future documentary.

My route took me from Sarasota to Caracas and then by a domestic carrier to Puerto Ordaz situated along the immense Orinoco River. Another day of travel by car took us to the infamous Kilometer 88 gold mining region, which is the last place to purchase supplies before venturing into the heart of the Lost World. Near Km 88, we stayed one more night at the “Brisas del Cuyuní” gold mining camp operated by Gold Reserve, Inc., the company proposing the large open pit mine.

Obtaining a permit from the Venezuelan Government for such a large project is not a simple matter. Many years of planning, enacting social and medical improvements in the community, and conducting environmental studies are required. To further compliance in the environmental arena of their operations, Brisas del Cuyuní entered into an agreement with Conservation International in 2006 to collaborate on environmental issues, including our recent inventory.

Our main target area was in and around the junction of the Uey and Cuyuní rivers, the area that will be affected by the proposed mine and which is being degraded by numerous illegal miners. There are no roads in the area, so our transportation was by river using four large dugout style canoes and in part via helicopter to establish a forward camp in the foothills of the Sierra de Lema. Our base camp was situated on a high bank, which in this area is critical to avoid the effects of the wildly fluctuating river levels. With approximately 23-feet of rainfall per year (compared with about 4-feet per year in Florida), the Cuyuní basin is one of the wettest in South America. Even though we were there in the “dry season,” it rained on average three times a day. The wet season must be a truly aquatic experience.

Arriving at the muddy, makeshift port to begin our journey, we were surprised to find dozens of boats loading and unloading provisions. We learned that normally only one or two boats would be at the port on any single day, but gold fever was raging in the area, fueled by a new find high up the Cuyuní and by rapidly rising international gold prices.

After arriving at base camp an hour upstream from the port and claiming our sleeping berths, we began work. Boats would depart and arrive at all times of day, well before dawn for the birders and late at night for the mammalogists. The ichthyologists impressed me with their willingness to jump into the murkiest of waters to ply their nets and would come up with a wide array of fishes (upon some of which we would later dine), and would occasionally even net a stingray or electric eel. The limnologists sampled fish tissues to be analyzed later for mercury contamination, a byproduct of the illegal miners. The kitchen was always open and the food good and filling.

Our paramedic, Sol, earned her keep tending to numerous scrapes and cuts, and she also doctored one of our guides through a sting from a Tityus scorpion, known to be highly venomous. His evacuation by river in the middle of the night was a sobering experience, and the treatment that he received, including an unusual injection of scorpion anti-venom, may have saved his life. Only one other evacuation was required, this one by helicopter, when another scientist slipped on some rocks and dislocated his shoulder.

We established two additional light camps, one at the furthest navigable point on the upper Uey an hour upstream from base camp, and another in a narrow canyon several thousand feet higher in the Sierra de Lema and only reached by helicopter. Late one stormy night at the upper Uey camp where five of us were working for several days, we noticed that our boat, previously tied far down on the rocky shore, was clanking about the shrubbery adjacent to our camp. Realizing we were about to be flooded out, we quickly packed camp and headed downriver through heavy rain and swollen water, crashing through tree branches now at river level and with every headlamp turned on to help our captain navigate his way downstream to base camp. If there was any time that we were going to tip over on the trip, I was sure this was it, but our skilled pilot brought us safely back to the base camp.

For 16 days we kept up a frantic pace. Botanically speaking, we found the area very rich in plant life and collected over 800 samples. One interesting discovery was the presence of several species,  thought to be restricted to higher elevations of the table mountains, two thousand feet lower than previously recorded. Distribution information such as this will become increasingly helpful in our knowledge of how plants might be able to adapt to the effects of climate change.

With literally thousands of specimens in hand, it was finally time to break camp and for me to head back to Caracas to prepare the plant specimens. Our results will be tallied and published later this year along with our conservation recommendations to the government. It is feasible that the upper Uey River can be added to the adjacent Canaima National Park or at least provide a sizeable buffer between the mining area and the park. While in Caracas, I learned that we had received a grant from the Wonken Foundation of Venezuela to support the next two years of work in the Sierra de Lema, including funds for more helicopter time into areas never before visited by biologists. We are, without a doubt, looking forward to that!

Visit the “Research” area of the Selby Gardens website to see an online slide show from the expedition and links to related information.

Acknowledgments. I wish to thank the staff of Brisas del Cuyuní for their excellent logistical support, Conservation International and the Fundación La Salle for inviting me to participate and for all that they do in the name of conservation, and especially Selby volunteer Marge Schmiel for her financial support.