Venezuelan Wildlife

When you come to Venezuela, you have to get to know the locals. And no, I'm not talking about the Venezuelans themselves, I'm talking about their feathered and furry friends. Throughout its forests and along its riverbanks, Venezuela is bursting with wildlife. Before you decide to swim with piranhas or stake out dinosaurs, check out our guide to Venezuela's wilder inhabitants. 

Capybara (Chigüire)

One of the most common sights in the lowlands is the capybara, or chigüire, a large aquatic rodent that looks like a cross between a guinea pig and a hippopotamus. It is the largest of all rodents at over 1-m long and weighing over 50kg. Large groups can be found along riverbanks, where they graze on the lush grasses. They come out on to dry land to rest and bask in the sun, but at the first hint of danger (usually a jaguar or a puma) the whole troop dashes back into the water. Mid-escape, they might be heard emitting a series of strange clicks, squeaks and grunts.

Killer fish

The much-maligned piranha has a fearsome reputation as a flesh-eating monster who will tear any unsuspecting tourist to shreds within seconds of setting foot in a tropical river. But is this infamous fish really so bad? Or is it merely the unfortunate victim of some bad publicity? There are over 30 types of piranha in South America but only one or two types are flesh eaters. Some feed on other fish and some are even vegetarian. The red-bellied piranhas, though, are real flesh eaters. These 20-cm-long fish with razor-sharp teeth hunt in packs or schools in the many rivers that intersect the Llanos floodplains.

They breed early in the wet season, when both sexes turn a dark shade and the female is swollen with eggs. Then begins the courtship ritual, which can last several nights, as the female takes her time in deciding on her potential partner’s suitability as a father. Once her mind is made up they mate and the female takes off, leaving the male to guard the eggs. Although as many as 4000 come from a single batch of eggs, only a handful survive the first few months. Their greatest test comes in the dry season when there is a danger of becoming isolated from the main rivers and food becomes scarce. The weaker piranhas then fall prey to the stronger ones in a frenzy of cannibalism. Birds also join in, feeding on the dying fish. The fabled killer now has no defense against the elements. Those that are too large to be swallowed by the storks are picked off by vultures. Caiman also feed on dying piranhas, attracted by the birds. But when the rains come the savannah is turned into a huge inland sea and the tables are turned. The piranhas prey on the great white egrets, which nest in the trees. In their desperate attempts to find more food than their parents can supply, the clumsy chicks leave the nest and fall in the rivers where they are grabbed by the piranhas.

The Land that Time Forgot

Roraima is the most famous of all the tepuis, and for a good reason. Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Lost World was based on the accounts of Everard Im Thurn, who was the first explorer ever to climb to the summit of Roraima, in 1884. On his return, he gave a series of lectures, which inspired Conan Doyle to write of a strange and mysterious land lost in time and inhabited by prehistoric creatures. But Conan Doyle’s imaginings may not be so far fetched. Scientists have called these tepuis ecological islands – or islands in time. These separated from the surrounding land two billion years ago and unique species of plant have been found on their wild, marshy summits. New sub-species of fauna, too, have been discovered.

Indeed, one of the legendary old pioneers of Canaima, Alexander Laime, who lived in a hut below Auyán Tepuy, claimed he had seen prehistoric creatures near the summit. He made a sketch, and it turned out that they looked uncannily like plesiosaurs, aquatic mammals of the Jurassic period, which were thought to have been extinct for nearly 100 million years. It’s true that when you reach the top of Roraima, you do experience a strange, eerie sensation – almost as if you had travelled far back in time. So, perhaps a question you should be asking any potential guide is “how fast can dinosaurs run?”

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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