Four weeks in rainforest gives student insight into parents' homeland

By Matt Terry, September 15, 2011

    Nikkita Autar spent a month this summer in Guyana studying deforestation's effects on animals such as the rainbow boa. The life sciences student said she can't wait to get back out into the field to do more research. Photo courtesy Nikkita Autar.
For Nikkita Autar, this summer's trip to her parents' native Guyana was a little different
than the trips she has made in the past.

Typically confined to the small South American nation's capital and largest city,
Georgetown, this year's journey instead took Autar 12 hours down the bumpy road to
the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, where
she assisted researchers with their work in finding alternatives to deforestation.

"Deforestation is a particular concern in Guyana due to the fact that it is so rich in
forested land, making it a prime target for lumber companies," said the second-year life
sciences student. "What complicates matters is that Guyana is quite poor and is now
stuck on whether to protect its forests and the wildlife that goes along with them or
gain income by further developing the country."

Working with Operation Wallacea, a network of academics working on biodiversity and
conservation management, Autur helped research the effects of reduced-impact logging
for an upcoming study.

"We were exploring the possibility of logging in a way that has the least amount of
impact on wildlife habitats within the forest."

Together with a group of eight other volunteers, Autur spent her first days at Iwokrama
learning skills such as mist netting, used to capture birds and bats, and mammal and
reptile surveying. Over the course of the next few weeks, the group stayed at three
different camps, each more primitive than the last.

"We had to make the transition from beds, toilets and showers to hammocks, outhouses
and rivers," said Autur. "It was tough, but once I was out in the field surveying, my mind
was completely focused on the task at-hand."

The Guyanese rainforest is home to a diverse and vast population of wildlife. Among the
creatures Autur encountered was a giant otter, spotted while she fished for black
piranha, a false vampire bat, howler monkeys and a jaguar. She was also pelted with
branches by black spider monkeys, upset that she was intruding on their habitat.

None of this, however, compared to her biggest encounter: a nine and a half foot-long
green anaconda, which swam alongside the team's boat.

"I had never seen such a large snake before," she said.

Autur said she's now able to identify many animals by their tracks and calls - skills she
didn't think she would ever possess.

"I used to think field work was boring, but after spending a summer doing it I know
that's not true," she said. "I can't wait to get back out and do more."

She also said she sees many benefits to doing the sort of work she did and, for
someone with a special connection to Guyana, was inspired by the positive reactions of
area villagers.

"Very little research is done in the country, so what we did there will go a long way in
terms of conservation."