How a little red bird led to the formation of Rupununi conservation body

By Alva Soloman

Two Saturdays ago, members and well-wishers of the South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS) gathered to share their thoughts, memories and experiences at a simple ceremony as the body celebrated its 20th year of serving the region.
The event, held at the Wichabi Ranch – headquarters of the body – was one that brought back fond memories to those in attendance, especially the founders. It also provided the entity with an opportunity to reflect on its efforts thus far, and to map its plans ahead.
But what dominated the conversations was a bird — the endangered Red Siskin finch. Building from scratch,
Programme coordinator of the conservation body, Neal Miller, recounted that in the early 2000s, a group of scientists from the Smithsonian Institute, accompanied by local guides from the tour operator, made a discovery that was set to shock the global scientific community and drastically change the future of conservation in the Rupununi region.
He told Guyana Times that the group identified the Red Siskin, known scientifically as the Spinus cucullatus, a seed-finch which until then was only known to be found hundreds of miles away in northern Venezuela. He said that, at that time, the Red Siskin was classified as “Critically Endangered” due to its history of being intensely trapped for the purpose of selling. He said this resulted in a severe population decline, to the point where it was almost impossible to find the Red Siskin in the wild, and the species was on the brink of extinction.
“The unexpected discovery of the Red Siskin catalyzed a group of nature-loving friends, who had noticed a decline in the abundance of wildlife, a degradation of the environment, and continued loss of culture in the Rupununi, to form the South Rupununi Conservation Society,” Miller said. That was in June 2002.

SRCS Ranger Maxi Ignace holding a small Red Siskin finch (SRCS photo)

The founding members, Justin de Freitas, Nicholas Fredericks, Asaph Wilson, Nicholas Cyril and Leroy Ignacio, decided that they wanted to use a combination of community-based conservation, environmental education, and research to preserve the wildlife, environment, and culture of the Rupununi. The first task for the newly formed SRCS was to understand more about the Red Siskin, Miller said, and he noted that that was in order to ensure that this bird’s population was safe from the threats it had faced in Venezuela.

Friends, officials and well-wishers of the South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS) joined the body as it celebrated its 20th anniversary at the Wichabi Ranch in South Central Rupununi, where the entity is headquartered (SWM photo)

To do this, the SRCS recruited members from Indigenous communities across the South Rupununi, who shared the founding group members’ passion for wildlife, the environment and adventure. These new recruits were then trained in skills such as binocular use, GPS use, bird identification, and bird handling, to become SRCS “rangers”.
In the years that followed, Miller said, the SRCS spearheaded efforts to collect data that was new to science, including the range of the Red Siskin in Guyana, its population size, and its genetic code. At the same time, he said, the SRCS also advocated for the Red Siskin to be added to the list of protected species in Guyana, and this was successfully done.
“The SRCS was also officially appointed as the guardians of the Red Siskin by the Guyana Environmental Protection Agency in 2003,” Miller said.

Trapping, other threats
But even as the conservation body exhausted its efforts in understanding the SRCS, rangers discovered that the local population of the Red Siskin was under threat from trapping, trading, and habitat destruction. “If these threats were left unabated, it was possible that the Guyanese population of Red Siskins could have severely declined,” Miller said.

A section of the gathering at the simple ceremony two Saturdays ago (SWM photo)

He said those threats prompted the SRCS to further engage some of the Indigenous communities, on whose titled and proposed extensions the Red Siskin’s range occurred, to work together to find a solution. Those villages were Sand Creek, Sawariwau, Katoonarib, Rupunau and Shulinab, all of which remain committed to the SRCS cause.
Their efforts resulted in the creation of the “Red Siskin Community Based Conservation Management” zone, which is one of the first of its kind in Guyana. According to Miller, the zone covers the known range of the Red Siskin, and has a set of rules, the purpose of which is to protect the finch population that was decided upon by the five communities. The zone will now be monitored by SRCS rangers from each of the five communities with the aim of reducing the number of threats these birds face and hopefully increasing their population.

The zone has also been recognized as the first Important Bird Area (IBA) in Guyana.

Tourists draw
Miller has said that the conservation efforts of the Red Siskin has also resulted in tourists having an interest in the bird. “Since the discovery of the Red Siskin, the number of tourists travelling to the South Rupununi has significantly increased, with eager bird watchers travelling from all across the world to see the magnificent little red bird,” he said.
He said this has benefitted the local communities, which are now able to find opportunities as guides, caterers, accommodation providers, transportation providers, and more. He said the SRCS has been credited for its role in this development, and its efforts have been recognized by the Guyana Tourism Authority, which presented the body with an award for “an outstanding contribution to tourism by an NGO.”

Not an easy road
Jamaican singer Buju Banton’s single “It’s not an easy road” is almost identifiable with the journey of the SRCS and the Red Siskin project. “When the organization was founded, there was no money available at all to implement the projects that were needed. Further, it was very difficult for SRCS to access funding grants in the early years, as they had no prior experience to prove to funders that they were capable of implementing projects,” Miller related.
He told this publication that the founding members of SRCS were not holders of university degrees, and had no experience in applying for grants. However, he said what they did have was the local knowledge of their environment combined with some scientific knowledge that they had learnt from visiting researchers over the years. “Therefore, for the first five years of SRCS, the members completed all their activities using their own resources, and by donating money from their own pockets,” he said.
Miller noted that this allowed the organization to complete multiple activities, including mapping Red Siskin habitat sites and learning more about their behaviour.
After these first five years, he said, the SRCS was successful in being awarded its first grant from the Conservation Leadership Programme. Following this grant, SRCS went from strength to strength, receiving grants from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the Small Grants Programme, and the Rufford Foundation; as well as a second grant from the Conservation Leadership Programme.
“The SRCS was then able to use these funds to implement various aforementioned activities to collect information on the Red Siskin that would aid in its conservation,” Miller added.
He said the Red Siskin project implemented was therefore its main focus for the first 16 years of its history.

According to Miller, the SRCS had always sought to expand its work to research and protect other threatened wildlife in the Rupununi, and to implement projects to preserve the local environment and culture. This ambition was given a great boost in 2018 when the Sustainable Wildlife Management – Programme Guyana (SWM) was established and created a partnership agreement with SRCS.
He said Support from SWM allowed SRCS to implement an environmental education curriculum, research and protect Giant Anteaters, research and protect the Yellow-spotted River Turtle, and implement projects to preserve traditional knowledge. The partnership with SWM also allowed the organization to build its internal capacity to manage projects.
He said for all projects that the SRCS has ever implemented, the organisation maintains that they should be led by the communities and that SRCS is therefore to facilitate the project.
“Therefore, the aim of each project is to build the capacity of the project communities to be able to sustainably manage their wildlife, environment, and culture. This is always done in collaboration with the community and through combining scientific and traditional knowledge,” Miller pointed out.
Last Saturday’s event was held to celebrate the achievements of SRCS, and to acknowledge the individuals who have contributed to that success. At the event, all SRCS members unanimously agreed that the success of the organization so far has been down to the commitment, dedication and sacrifice made by its members, who want to see the wildlife, environment and culture of their home preserved.
In the future, the members of the SRCS realise that threats to this vision have increased, and according to Miller, members agreed that they must be proactive to mitigate these and other potential threats.
He said the SRCS expressed hope that their story can inspire other groups of individuals within Guyana and across the world to take action to protect what is around them. “As the SRCS members agreed, we cannot wait for someone else to come, or for funding to arrive; it is our home, and we need to be the ones responsible for preserving it and our way of life.”