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Guyana oil development bringing new discoveries of wildlife

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OilNow is an online-based Information and Resource Centre which serves to complement the work of all stakeholders in the oil and gas sector in Guyana.

Exploration activities offshore South America’s lone English-speaking country – Guyana – have so far unearthed billions of barrels of crude. The environmental studies being conducted for the development of these oil fields are also discovering something else – new species of wildlife, adding to the already rich biodiversity Guyana has always been known for.

Colourful birds, exotic animal species and diverse fishes make the country a nature lover’s paradise.

If one were to observe Guyana’s wildlife, it is highly possible that ever so often something new could be learnt.

And this is what has happened in recent years.

A look at older records show that there are 95 species of coastal birds in Guyana. These can be divided into 32 families. There are also 113 species of non-coastal birds that have been documented in inland habitats. In total, prior records show that there was a total of 208 bird species in Guyana. However, this has changed based on more recent data collected which bore exciting discoveries and news—the entry of new species to the country.

In 2017, ExxonMobil Guyana began conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for its Payara Development Project, a study which occurred over the course of two years. This study looked at how plans for activities in the Payara field, which includes 45 development wells, would impact the environment and took into consideration the marine fish and mammals, sea and coastal birds, and other wildlife.

The study presented the opportunity for Environmental Resources Management (ERM), an environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting company, to take a closer look at these various wildlife—examining existing data and conducting their own studies.

And, the findings were quite interesting. In the EIA report, it is stated that the survey data on birds that were conducted over the course of two years across 117 sites in Regions One to Six, showed that 230 species of birds were documented. This reflects the addition of 22 species, based on what was previously known.

According to the Assessment, “Coastal sites accounted for 212 species and island sites accounted for 140 species, with 121 species found at both coastal and island sites. It continued to point out that many of the species recorded in the Coastal area during the study were newly documented in that area.

However, interesting to note was a disclosure in the report that “…some species previously known to occur along the Guyana coast, based on historical records, were not documented during the 2017-2019 surveys, therefore, the coastal bird community likely has an even higher number of bird species richness than documented in the 2017-2019 surveys.”

The most common shorebirds observed during the study were the Semipalmated Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Sanderling, and Greater, while the most common colonial water birds were the Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Scarlet Ibis, Semipalmated Plover, and the Tricolored Heron.

Then there are those birds that prefer to take to the seas—the marine birds. Surveys showed “69 bird species within the Stabroek Block and the area between Georgetown and the Stabroek Block.”

However, it noted that less than 50 percent of these are ‘seabirds’, while the others are considered shorebirds “or land birds that fly over the Caribbean during migration, coastal birds on long-distance offshore foraging trips, or regional (short-distance) movements between breeding and non-breeding areas.”  The study provided a breakdown of these 69 species. Sixteen of those species were land birds while nine were shorebirds. Coastal birds accounted for 11 species, seabirds for 33. It was also pointed out that, according to records, 24 of those species were already documented to be present offshore Guyana, but, strangely enough, four of the species that were previously documented were not sighted during the study—the Great Skua, Lesser Black-backed Gull,  Gull-billed Tern and Barolo Shearwater. The newly documented 24 other species were attributed to “the lack of documented comprehensive surveys of marine birds offshore Guyana prior to these surveys.”

Another fascinating find was the discovery of seven new species to Guyana. The Bridled Tern, Manx Shearwater, Red-billed Tropicbird, Bulwer’s Petre, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Long-tailed Jaeger and Great Black-backed Gull were never found in the South American country, prior to this study.  The document also revealed that, “Two unconfirmed species, Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) and Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) may be additional new records for Guyana, but these species require field or photographic confirmation before they are added to the definitive species list.”

Dr. Gyanpriya Maharaj

Director of the University of Guyana’s (UG) Centre for Study of Biological Diversity (CSBD) Dr. Gyanpriya Maharaj, sat down with OilNOW and explained that this information can now serve several purposes.

Director of the University of Guyana’s (UG) Centre for Study of Biological Diversity (CSBD) Dr. Gyanpriya Maharaj, sat down with OilNOW and explained that this information can now serve several purposes.

“It helps with land use. If we know what type of species we have and where our species are distributed, then we can make more informed decisions  and policies on how we want to use our land,” she explained.

Dr. Maharaj also noted that such information is also used in the regulation and management of land,  fully understanding the implications to natural and anthropogenic factors affecting ecosystems and conservation purposes, sharing, “…for example, we have our mangroves that protect the coastland from the ocean and serve as an important nursery for fish life. Therefore, once we can identify where our mangroves are located, the size of each stand and the biodiversity present within, we can do a full evaluation of its importance and changes occuring in this ecosystem. This information can be then be used as we plan for use and management  of the land near the mangroves and for conservation, protection and restoration of this important ecosystem ”

According to the Director, the information in relation to our wildlife is also key in implementing strategies, policies and projects relating to the environment, humans sharing the environment with plants and animals and to natural resource management on the whole.

“Generally these are the reasons why gathering biodiversity information is important. But the use of Biodiversity information is not limited to these reasons. In Guyana, we have approximately  70 percent forest cover and there are many areas within the country that have not been studied.  Therefore, it is imperative we carry out more research to study our biodiversity as there are many new species (of medicinal, agricultural, ecotourism and conservation, etc.  value)  that  are still to be discovered within our country,” she stated.

The Director noted that the Centre works along with organisations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Wildlife Commission and other conservation bodies. The Centre facilitates documentation of biodiversity, promotes conservation efforts in collaboration with local counterparts and drives education in relation to biodiversity.

Providing a closer look at their activities, Dr. Maharaj further divulged that when researchers want to conduct activities in Guyana the following must occur, “if research is done in the country, you have to contact the Guyana EPA and an application for a research permit must be made. Therefore, the Guyana EPA would hold a record of whosoever it is that’s doing research in the country and the nature of that research.”

She continued, “If you would like to take specimens out of the country, that’s where the Centre comes in and we would conduct a verification process. This process starts when researchers come out of the field with their specimens and bring them to us with a database of information associated with those specimens. The staff at the Centre would then check those specimens to ensure that the researcher has  collected  the taxa and, the quantity they’re supposed to collect in accordance with their EPA permit. They also ensure that these specimens were collected only from areas in which the researchers were permitted to work.”

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