During the rainy season, from May to August, the Rupununi River of the Guyanese interior gushes over its banks. This flooding turns many of the nearby savannahs, the size of Connecticut, into swamps so vast that they connect the Amazon and Essequibo watersheds. These marshes are a mythic place, believed by some historians to be the source of the legend of Lake Parima—the site of El Dorado, the lost city of gold—and beloved by many naturalists for the riot of life that swarms about them.
But the Rupununi of the dry season is a very different place. The savannahs desiccate. The life retreats. The river shrinks at points 10 to 15 feet below its steep, sandy banks, running cloudy, shallow, and slow. The fish bite less. The birds call soft. The brush on the banks buffers out the skies.
Drifting along the dry river in the dead of night, shrouded in darkness and listening to the soft gurgle of muddy water and rustle of dry branches, is an almost womblike experience. But if you wave a flashlight across the surface of the water, you’ll notice that it occasionally flashes off of little orbs floating in stationary pairs. They’re eyes. They’re watching you from the murky shallows. They’ve been watching you all the way down the river’s amniotic calm, peering just above the surface.
Fernando Li stands at the bow of his boat on the Rupununi River holding a snare pole and searching for caiman eye flashes in the darkness. Photo: Kara Li
Each eye flash is a black caiman. These beasts look like American alligators, but with narrower snouts lined with bony ridges. They are the biggest members of the alligatoridae family, and the largest apex predators in the South American rainforests. Adult males average 12 feet long and over 650 pounds and can reportedly reach 20 feet long and over 900 pounds. Once common throughout the continent’s jungle shallows, heavy hunting through the mid-20th century reduced their population by almost 99 percent to under one million, spread across mostly small and threatened pockets from Bolivia to French Guiana. But the population on this stretch of river, estimated at 3,500 adults, is among the most robust left in the world. The Rupununi is a land of giants—giant anteaters, armadillos, otters, snakes, spiders, and rodents. But the caiman is still king; although they don’t often go after humans, they can easily take us down—or really anything else that needs to be killed.
Standing at the bow of his tin boat, Fernando Li, a solemn and thickly muscled man from the local Makushi population, catches an eye flash in his light and, holding it in the beam, signals for the motormen to stop. The motor in the boat in which I’m crouched is killed and we drift up close to Li’s. Josie George, another Makushi from a nearby town, sits at the bow of our boat and sweeps his own light towards the caiman. As he does, Li stands up and, his boat creeping towards the eerily calm eyes, slowly hefts up a 10-foot snare pole and extends it out over the water. In the hazy edges of George’s lamp, I notice that the side of Li’s boat is peppered in dents and dings. Some look oddly like jagged fang marks.
This little man is about to catch a black caiman—to subdue what we later learn is a 10-foot crocodilian pushing 300 pounds—with his snare pole and his tin boat. He’s not doing it for glory or food or the amusement of anyone in my on-looking boat. He’s doing it for science. And we get to watch.
Suddenly, the snare drops over the caiman’s head and Li jerks it back to tighten the noose. Immediately, his motorman blasts the engine into a hard reverse. The caiman cracks and lashes out of the water, pulling against the snare and the outboard with all his might. His head slams the tin. He grunts and groans like thunder. Li holds fast to the snare and, after minutes of struggle, the caiman tires out. Li grabs his jaws and holds them shut up against the side of the boat while another man pulls out a roll of pink duct tape, circling it round and round his snout until he is fully subdued.
The author, at Li’s invitation, feels the strength of the scaling even on a black caiman’s underside. Photo: Kara Li
The boats drag the animal towards a sandbank, then everyone jumps out and hauls his mass up onto the sand. The exhausted caiman just sits there, waiting and watching, while the team breaks out rulers, scales, probes and vials, and proceeds to measure, determine the sex of, visually assess, weigh, and plant a serial number chip into him. They also cut off three of his spines, representing his number on their spreadsheets as a way to re-identify him if he loses his ID chip and they happen to recapture him. Then we drag the violated caiman to the edge of the water. I’m given the honor of undoing the duct tape around his jaws. Once they’re released, I and the men holding him down all launch ourselves backwards, waiting to see whether he lashes back at us. But this one just slides back into the dark waters.
My friend Kara and I have just participated in the Caiman Project. An ongoing study carried out by the Makushi village of Yupukari (really a collection of smaller communities totaling 1,000 people) for nearly 15 years, the project is one of several efforts to learn more about a single remote predator. Each study involves similar visceral struggles repeated hundreds of times over years and years, slowly building up a complex demographic and ecological profile that will eventually be nonchalantly condensed onto a child’s National Geographic animal fact card. Caiman House, the Project’s home base in Yupukari, is one of the only places in the world where you can actively engage in this often hidden research process as an outsider, gaining a deeper understanding for the grit of biology. And the story of how the house opened its research to tourists is itself a telling tale of the struggles some zoologists face to keep such a study going.
The author takes the duct tape off of a ten-foot black caiman’s jaws while George and Li hold it down, ready to release it unfettered into the water (and back away quickly as they do). Photo: Kara Li
Caiman catching is not some traditional Makushi practice now being leveraged by scientists. Peter Taylor, an American animal wrangler and devoted reptile lover, founded the Caiman Project in 2001 while managing the St. Louis Zoo’s reptile house as a venue to enhance his herpetological studies. His then-wife Alice Layton joined him there, setting up many village programs parallel to the project. According to Layton, when she first arrived in Yupukari, no one had ever caught a caiman before. In fact, while the locals had a wealth of knowledge about every plant and animal with any remote use, they’d never learned much about big predators—creatures that seem more dangerous than potentially useful to everyday life.
The only time Yupukari troubled itself with caiman before the millennium at all, according to George, was to kill them—not for use or study, but because they’d become problematic. Josie recounts the story of a huge local one-eyed caiman that, unlike others that kept to themselves, one day made a rush for a villager, nearly killing him. After deliberating for a time, the villager who’d escaped death came to the bank with a small group of people with a ‘snappy’—an old, oft-misfiring rifle—and decided to “wipe this creature out of this world.” But attacks and retributions like these (contrary to the impression given in old and even modern jungle adventure books like Matthew Reilly’s 2012 Temple or James Rollins’ 2002 Amazonia, where caiman gobble people up on the regular) are incredibly rare. No one went out looking for such confrontations.