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Fungal and Plant Diversity of Central French Guiana
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Central French Guiana:
A Unique and Rugged Tourist Experience

Scott A. Mori, Carol A. Gracie and John D. Mitchell
Institute of Systematic Botany
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, New York 10458-5126

This paper is an English version of "Le Centre de la Guyane franšaise: Une expérience unique et rude" to be published in the Journal d'Agriculture Traditionnelle et de Botanique Appliquée" in 1999.

ABSTRACT - Ecotourism has the potential to provide a means for generating income to local inhabitants as well as national and international economies while, at the same time, protecting natural ecosystems. Among the reasons that central French Guiana is an ideal place for the development of ecotourism are the presence of undisturbed rain forest with a high diversity of relatively well-known plants and animals, a basic infrastructure in place for the accommodation of tourists, a relatively healthy environment, friendly inhabitants living in a politically stable department of France, and reliable and safe means of transportation.

KEY-WORDS - French Guiana, ecotourism, rain forest conservation, tourism


      Between one-third and one-half of the earth's surface has been modified by human action. Man's influence has been so pervasive that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by nearly 30% since the beginning of the industrial revolution, more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by humanity than by all other terrestrial processes, more than one-half of all accessible surface fresh water is used by mankind, and a large but undetermined number of plants and animals have been driven to extinction by the hand of man (Vitousek et al., 1997). Wilderness has disappeared to such an extent that only 11% of the world's lands remain pristine. It is shocking that only 3.9% of the United States is protected as National Parks or declared Wilderness (Waller, 1996)and that the United States has actually paved over more land than it has protected as Wilderness (Callicott, 1994).
Image--Tropical forest in French Guiana       Nevertheless, humans still derive inspiration and satisfaction from observing undisturbed ecosystems(Iltis, 1997), and the inherent human desire to contemplate and understand nature is what drives ecotourism. In this paper, we discuss ecotourism per se (i.e., travel with the sole purpose of enjoying nature)and scientific ecotourism (i.e., travel to various parts of the world for the purpose of undertaking scientific study). An example of the former would be a tourist traveling to Costa Rica to see the resplendent quetzal in the Monteverde cloud forest and of the latter, a botanical research team working to document the plant diversity of central French Guiana. Both types of ecotourism generate income for the inhabitants of the areas visited and have minimal direct impact on the ecosystems visited.
      Undisturbed ecosystems have great potential for generating income beyond the products that can be directly extracted from them. The earth's ecosystems provide many services for which the value is just beginning to be calculated, e.g., atmospheric gas regulation, protection of the earth's water sources, pollination of economically important plants, etc. (Costanza et al., 1997). Another of these services, the cultural and recreational use of nature, is so valuable that Pimentel et al. (1997) calculate that ecotourism (not including hunting and fishing) generates $500 billion annually in contrast to the annual $84 billion generated by the sale of over-the-counter plant-based drugs.
      Tourism is one of the world's fastest growing non-military industries and may become the highest income-generating industry by the year 2000 (Barzetti, 1993). Between 1970 and 1990 it increased by nearly 300 percent, and, in 1991 alone, 450 million international travelers generated more than $3 trillion in revenue. In that year, it was estimated that about 15 percent of the travelers participated in nature-related trips (Anonymous, 1995). Symbols of the rain forest, such as macaws in Peru, are such tourist draws that Munn (1992), using a range of estimates based on macaw longevity and ecotourism potentials, has calculated that each free-flying macaw can generate $22,500 to $165,000 of tourist revenue in its lifetime. The desire to observe birds in their natural habitats makes birding tours one of the leading sources of ecotourism income as well as provides some of the most convincing arguments for the conservation of natural habitats (Streiffert, 1998).
      The value of undisturbed nature, like any other commodity, continues to rise as it becomes more and more scarce. Therefore, undisturbed areas such as found in central French Guiana will increase in value as tropical forests in other areas are depleted.
      The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the forests of central French Guiana are rich in species of plants and animals, that they have great ecotourism potential, and that they should be protected in a pristine state in order to promote ecotourism which will in turn generate the income needed to justify their conservation. We concur with Robinson and Redford (1991) who state,

"That the use of wildlife [interpreted by us as both plants and animals] can be consumptive or nonconsumptive. People can value wildlife for commercial, recreational, scientific, esthetic, or spiritual reasons. But people must use and therefore value wildlife, otherwise wildlife will be lost."

      We argue that the esthetic value and ecosystem services provided by tropical wildlife are so valuable that to fail to preserve large tracts of tropical ecosystems may be contrary to sound economics. Nevertheless, we agree that ecotourism is not the only solution to rain forest conservation and that, in some cases, ecotourism may even cause environmental problems (Yu et al., 1997).


      For the purposes of this discussion, we limit our concept of central French Guiana to a 140,250 hectare area surrounding the village of Saül (Fig. 1). This corresponds to the area covered by the Guide to the Vascular Plants of Central French Guiana (Mori et al., 1997) located between 3°30' and 3°45'N latitudes and 53° and 53°28'W longitudes (Fig. 2). The forests of central French Guiana are particularly important to protect because they are at the headwaters of three of French Guiana's major river systems, the Mana, the Approuague, and the Lawa/Maroni (Mori et al., 1997).
      Apart from minimal damage caused by localized slash-and-burn agriculture, limited logging, minor fuel-wood extraction, small-scale charcoal production, and scattered gold mining operations by individuals (Mori & de Granville, 1997), the vegetation of central French Guiana remains largely undisturbed. Hunting by locals for the following mammals: collared peccary, white-lipped peccary, tapir, deer, several species of monkeys, agoutis, and pacas; and birds: curassows, guans, and tinamous has an indirect effect on the plants of the region by removing important seed dispersers, seed predators, and herbivores (Kricher, 1997; Redford, 1992). Fishing is limited to sporadic take of aimara from larger streams such as the Saint-Eloi River. Nevertheless, within a 15-minute walk from Saül some of the least disturbed rain forest on the face of the earth still exists.
      The main vegetation of the region is lowland moist forest dominated by trees of Burseraceae, Sapotaceae, Lecythidaceae, Mimosaceae, Caesalpiniaceae, Rubiaceae, Moraceae, Chrysobalanaceae, Meliaceae, and Bombacaceae. The tallest trees, e.g.,bois diable (Hura crepitans L.),ceiba (Ceiba pentandra (L.) Gaertn.), Huberodendron swietenioides(Gleason) Ducke, and Terminalia guyanensis Eichler reach 55 to 65 meters in height. Mori and Boom (1987) found 619 trees of 10 cm DBH or more with a basal area of 53 m2 per hectare. The understory is rich in species of Rubiaceae and Melastomataceae and is sometimes dominated by astrocaryum palms.
      Other, less extensive, vegetation types found in the area are granitic outcrops (e.g., Pic Matécho) harboring the spectacular terrestrial bromeliad, Vriesea splendens (Brongn.) Lem. and the orchid, Phragmipedium lindleyanum (Schomb.) Rolfe; low areas along streams often dominated by pinot (Euterpe oleracea Mart.); cloud forest at the summit of Mont Galbao at 762 m with an abundance of bryophytes and ferns; and secondary forest, for example along the airport road, with numerous individuals of bois-canon (Cecropia obtusa Trécul and C. sciadophylla Mart.) and bois l'homme (Trema micrantha (L.) Blume).
      These vegetation types contribute both rare and common species to the overall species richness of central French Guiana. Botanical inventory by ORSTOM, in collaboration with The New York Botanical Garden, has registered 12 species of lycopods and Selaginella (Lycophyta), 182 species of ferns (Pterophyta), a single species of Gnetum (Gnetophyta), 426 species of monocotyledons in 27 families, and 1861 species of dicotyledons in 111 families (Mori et al., 1997; Mori & Brown, 1998). Surveys of other plant and fungal groups, e.g., mosses (W. R. Buck of The New York Botanical Garden), liverworts (B. Thiers of The New York Botanical Garden), lichens (R. Harris of The New York Botanical Garden), and ascomycete fungi (Huhndorf, 1997) are in progress.
Image--Cochleanthes_guianensis       The long-term goal of the botanical and fungal inventories is to gather the collections upon which guides to the groups of plants (e.g., Mori et al., 1997) and fungi of central French Guiana are based. The availability of these and other guides serve to make this area of greater interest to ecotourists and scientific researchers alike. However, a thorough sampling of even the vascular plants and mosses, the best-known groups of plants in the area, is still not completed. Since the onset of serious botanical exploration in 1965 in central French Guiana, 65 taxa of flowering plants, one species of moss, and one species of lichen have been described as new to science (Mori & Gracie, manuscript-a). Moreover, a considerable number of flowering plant taxa new to central French Guiana have been documented during each five-year interval since 1965 (Mori & Gracie, manuscript-b). Although this trend is tapering off, it is expected that additional taxa, both new to science as well as new to the area, will continue to be documented for many years to come as has been demonstrated for even better-known floras such as those of California (Shevock & Taylor, 1987) and Missouri (Yatskievych, 1997).
      Although no specific guides for animals have been completed for central French Guiana, field manuals for mammals (Eisenberg, 1989; Emmons, 1997), birds (Haverschmidt, 1968; Meyer de Schauensee & Phelps, 1978; Tostain et al., 1992), snakes (Chippaux et al., 1988; Rogé & Sauvanet, 1987), and freshwater fish (Planquette et al., 1996) for much wider areas are useful for this area. A survey of the lower Crique Arataye, ca. 70 kilometers northeast of Saül and of similar habitat, has recorded 122 species (including 61 bats) of mammals of the total of 165 species expected by the authors to occur there (Voss & Emmons, 1996).
      The avifauna of South America, known as the "bird continent," comprises 3000 species (Ouellet, 1991) of which 800 can be observed in French Guiana (Tostain et al., 1992). Between 1976 and 1990, 266 species of birds were seen in the vicinity of Saül (J.D. Mitchell, unpublished checklist based on personal observations; Dick et al., 1984; Thiollay, 1989). A number of ornithological studies recognize the Guayana floristic province (Mori, 1991), of which central French Guiana is a part, as an endemic bird area (Bibby et al., 1992; Stolz et al., 1996; Wege & Long, 1995).
      Annual rainfall for Saül averages 2413 mm, and there is a distinct dry season from July to November and sometimes a less pronounced dry period of several weeks in February and March. The wettest months of the year are May and June. Temperature is relatively constant throughout the year with the daily fluctuation greater than seasonal fluctuation. In 1982, the average monthly temperature was 27.1║C and the average monthly minimum and maximum temperatures were 20.9║C and 31.5║C, respectively (Mori et al., 1997). The greatest number of tourists visit central French Guiana in the early dry season to take advantage of the good weather. As the dry season progresses, tourism declines because river trips become more difficult as a result of low water.


      Saül can be reached on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by a 45-minute Air Guyane flight which flies over undisturbed forest for most of the distance (apart from the developed area adjacent to Cayenne and around several small villages such as Cacao). Upon arrival at the airport, visitors either walk or are transported by vehicle for a mile into the village where rustic accommodations, including a community sponsored hotel, are available. For the most part, visitors sleep in hammocks, and at some of the facilities travelers must provide their own hammocks. Meals are available in a few small restaurants or can be prepared at some of the tourist facilities. Several small stores carry a limited stock of food, candles, cooking gas, etc. and fresh vegetables are available at a small stand open only on the days of Air Guyane flights. Seven kilometers to the north of Saül on the Route de Bélizon, is an excellent tourist facility providing hammock space in carbets along a beautiful stream and excellent food (Les Eaux Claires, 97314 Saül, French Guiana, fax no.: 594-27-01-71).
      One of the special features offered by the area surrounding Saül is a well-marked trail system (Fig. 3) that allows for relatively easy access to most of the vegetation types of the region. An exception is the vegetation found on granitic outcrops, none of which have a well-marked trail leading to them. Visitors should consult with local guides to get the most up-to-date information about trails because their condition may change drastically even after only a few years without maintenance. Guides are available in the village and at Eaux Claires, but should be arranged for in advance. In addition to hiking trips, some guides lead trips by canoe or kayak down the Mana and Inini Rivers.
      General information about the Saül region is provided by Castner (1990). However, details of his description of tourist facilities must be confirmed because some of the information is now outdated.
      As in all travel to remote tropical areas, the most successful trips are those by well-prepared travelers. Therefore, we recommend traveling with a hammock, mosquito net, tarp, and a supply of food. Air Guyane flights to Saül allow for only 10 kilos of baggage free-of-charge.


      The pristine forests of Saül harbor the dangers found throughout most of lowland South America. Insects, snakes, disease, spines on plants, and getting lost in the forest cause the most frequent problems.
      Travelers to central French Guiana known to have an allergic reaction to insect stings should bring along antihistamines and epinephrine. Botflies (Dermatobia hominis) are relatively common in the area and should be removed as soon as they are detected in order to avoid infection. Walking barefoot should be avoided because of a small flea (Tunga penetrans) that often burrows into feet, especially around the toenails. However, they do not carry disease, can easily be removed, and are therefore only a minor nuisance. Several other parasites, such as hookworm, may also be contracted by walking barefoot. Chiggers and ticks (arachnids) are common and, although not dangerous, can be a source of major discomfort. Cutaneous larva migrans (caused by the roundworm, Ancylostoma caninum) can be contracted via contact with animals in the village.
      The most dangerous snakes are the bushmaster (Lachesis muta) and the various species of fer-de-lance (Bothrops and Bothriopsis spp.). Although snake bites are infrequent, they do occur. Coral snakes (Micrurus spp.) are also present but they only become dangerous if handled.
      Malaria does occur in central French Guiana. However, the incidence is not high in the vicinity of Saül, perhaps because of the relative lack of mosquitoes due to the acidity of most of the streams in the area. Dengue fever, a viral disease carried by day-flying mosquitoes, sporadically appears in the area. Malaria and dengue fever are best prevented by avoiding mosquito bites by wearing protective clothing, using repellent, and sleeping under a mosquito net.
      Leishmaniasis (pian bois), a tropical ulcer caused by a flagellate protozoan and transmitted by sand flies, occurs in the area from time to time, especially at the onset of the rainy season. The best preventative for leishmaniasis is to avoid the bites of sand flies which are most active around dusk. Long pants and long-sleeve shirts as well as mosquito repellent effectively deter sand flies.
      The forests of French Guiana harbor numerous spine-bearing palms of the genera Astrocaryum and Bactris and, therefore, special care must be taken not to grab hold of, back into, or fall onto their spines.
      Getting lost is a constant danger in tropical forests. Although the main trails are generally well-marked, tree falls sometimes obscure the way. In order to safely pass tree falls, one person should go around the tree fall and relocate the trail's continuation while the others stay on the trail. It is unwise to hike alone.
      There is an infirmary in Saül in case of accident or sickness. In addition, radio and telephone contact between the village and Cayenne allow for medical help to arrive by plane or helicopter in a relatively short time. There is also a helicopter landing pad at Eaux Claires.


      A trip to central French Guiana is recommended only for self-motivated tourists with a keen interest in tropical nature, with a special interest in hiking and camping in remote and rugged terrain, or with a desire to descend a wilderness river or stream by boat. Tourists and scientific researchers come to Saül to bird-watch, observe monkeys and other wildlife, see tropical plants, photograph, hike, camp in a wilderness setting, participate in river trips, or simply to learn about and appreciate tropical nature in a pristine environment. Those without these interests should choose a different destination!
      We have participated in scientific ecotourism trips to central French Guiana since 1976. The goal of our trips has been to document the plant diversity of the region by making collections for deposit in local and international herbaria as well as to study the ecology of tropical plants in an area that has experienced minimal impact by man. The opportunity for studying undisturbed rain forest is rapidly disappearing, and therefore the vegetation of central French Guiana stands as a living museum of what pre-Columbian tropical environments were like. If there is to be any hope for regeneration of disturbed tropical vegetation, then there must be detailed studies of what it was like prior to extensive disturbance by man.
      Scientific ecotourism provides the information needed to make non-scientific ecotourism more interesting and educational. The visits of tourists are enhanced if they know the names of the plants and animals they see and if they learn about the complex interrelationships so prevalent in tropical environments. For example, a meaningful ecotour experience would be to observe the spectacular array of colorful perching birds visiting flowers during the dry season for nectar from the red flowers of the manil tree ( Symphonia globulifera L.f.) as reported by Gill et al. (1998). The research reported on in that paper is the result of a 1994 scientific ecotour to central French Guiana supported by the National Science Foundation.
      Ecotourism and scientific ecotourism both provide income for local inhabitants and host countries and, if properly controlled, cause minimal damage to the forests being visited and studied. It is important, however, that the number of visitors and their activities be regulated because tropical ecosystems can easily be disrupted by human intervention (Jullien & Thiollay, 1996) and even ecotourism may not be sustainable if all aspects of the impact caused by increased visitation is not carefully considered (Robinson, 1993).


      Since 1983 we have organized and led ecotours to Andean Ecuador, the Brazilian Amazon, Costa Rica, Venezuela, French Guiana, the Galápagos Islands, Hawaii, and Trinidad. In addition, we have been involved in scientific ecotourism to central French Guiana since 1976, making a total of 19 separate trips there. We will use several examples from our experiences as well as from others to demonstrate how ecotourism can generate local income and protect tropical environments at the same time.
      The small Central American country of Costa Rica (51,000 square kilometers), because of its varied topography and influx of species from both North and South America, is home to one of the highest biodiversities per square kilometer in the world. Although there is still a great deal to be learned, an extensive literature on the plants and animals of the country (e.g., Janzen, 1983; Stiles & Skutch, 1989) provides ecotourists with the information needed to learn about Costa Rica's biodiversity, thereby making a visit to the country a more rewarding and attractive experience. This, along with natural scenic beauty, excellent tourist facilities, and a well-educated and friendly population, has resulted in tourism becoming one of the leading sources of foreign exchange for Costa Rica (Dobson, 1995; Pimentel et al., 1997).
      There is a general public awareness in Costa Rica that unspoiled ecosystems are often worth more left intact for tourists to enjoy than if they are converted to farmland or pasture. As a result, nearly 25% of Costa Rica consists of wild lands protected for their biodiversity.
      The resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) serves as a specific example of how tourism leads to conservation. This, among the most spectacular of the world's birds, ranges from southern Mexico to Panama, and is one of the most sought after by birdwatchers. Habitat of the quetzal is partially protected in Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest and the International Children's Forest where breeding grounds of these birds are partially protected. However, quetzals migrate to lower elevation forests to feed on the fruits of Lauraceae during other times of the year(Powell & Bjork, 1994, 1995; Wille, 1993) and, therefore, in order for this species to survive, these forests must be preserved in combination with cloud forests. Profits from tourism have been used to buy land or to protect additional habitat through conservation easements thereby expanding the size of the effective reserves and protecting all the other plants and animals associated with the quetzal, as well as generating income for the local, national, and international economies.
      The llanos of Venezuela, as well as the pantanal of Brazil, still harbor some of the largest and most easily observed populations of animals found anywhere in South America. On our tours to the llanos, we have seen large herds of capybara, several ocelots, abundant caiman, flocks of waterfowl in the thousands, giant storks, seven species of ibis, and abundant songbirds. Unfortunately, this spectacular abundance of wildlife is mostly restricted to large cattle ranches in which hunting has been prohibited in an effort to promote tourism. Outside of these ranches and other protected areas, the llanos appear, for the most part, devoid of wildlife. Within the boundaries of the ranches, however, wildlife, cattle ranching, and tourism all co-exist, thereby simultaneously benefiting the local economy and conservation.
      Since 1987, we have been leading tours to the Brazilian Amazon where the majestic scenery, spectacular plant life, charming local inhabitants, numerous animals (especially birds), and good fishing provide irresistible and perennial attractions for tourists. Our trips are by boat out of Manaus. A typical trip includes several days on the main Amazon (Rio Solim§es) and nearly a week on the less spoiled Rio Negro. Our trips and those of others have developed a great appreciation for tropical nature in those who have participated in them. Moreover, income generated from these trips provides a higher standard of living for local tour operators and their employees.
      Since 1976, we have visited central French Guiana on 20 separate expeditions as part of a collaborative project with the ORSTOM Herbarium in Cayenne to document the plant and fungal diversity of central French Guiana. Our expeditions have included as few as two and as many as 12 researchers, each of whom generates income for all who deal with them during the time in the field and while traveling to and from the site. Moreover, the results of the research published in the form of guides (e.g., Mori et al., 1997) and scientific papers (e.g., Gill et al., 1998; Mori & Brown, 1994, 1998) provide the information needed to enhance the trips of other visitors and researchers to the area.


      Examples provided here and elsewhere demonstrate that ecotourism generates considerable income to local residents, enhances national and international economies, and often protects the environment. The forests of central French Guiana are no exception. The presence of undisturbed rain forest with high species richness of relatively well-known plants and animals; a basic infrastructure already in place for the accommodation of tourists; a relatively healthy environment; friendly inhabitants living in a politically stable department of France; and reliable and safe means of transportation make central French Guiana an ideal place to visit, study, and learn about tropical environments. If proper regulations are promulgated, i.e., the control of farming, ranching, hunting, and human population, the forests of central French Guiana will yield a much higher income for local, national, and international economies as a result of ecotourism than if they are cut and converted to other uses. At the same time, ecosystem services provided by undisturbed forests, such as the protection of French Guiana's three principal watersheds, will continue unabated.


      We thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Beneficia Foundation, the Eppley Foundation for Research, Inc., the National Geographic Society, and the Rockefeller Foundation for supporting a great deal of our research in central French Guiana. We are grateful to William R. Buck, Scott Heald, and Phil May for their useful comments on drafts of the manuscript.


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