I Sexed a Caiman

Made you look, huh?

Before you jump to any lewd conclusions, I'll clear the air and inform you that it simply means I determined the sex of a caiman, or black caiman (melanosuchus niger), one species of alligators found here in the Rupununi, the region that makes up the southern third of Guyana. The largest, actually.

Caiman House, HQ for the NGO I’m working with, gets its name from studying the black caiman here. One of the several projects CH is involved in is the Caiman Project, where they go out and capture, record data and release (and recapture) the caimans around Yupukari, my Amerindian (indigenous) village. To be able to preserve a species, one must know about it. The CP is one of only two projects of its kind in the world, and it was something started by American herpetologist Peter Taylor. He came to Guyana with his wife and son to study the caiman and other tropical reptiles. Alice, his wife, started the public library I work in, as well as other literacy-based projects in the community, all under the umbrella of Rupununi Learners, which is now an official NGO in the country.

That was the first night I got to go along with them on the CP. On that night, they caught their 505th new caiman, not including the numerous recaptures they've done. The CP started as something entirely for gathering empirical data, but as CH has become an eco-tourist lodge complete with a guest house made of local hand-crafted materials, it is something that guests are able to go out and experience, as well.

 There were two boats - the capture boat and the guest boat. The capture team is made up of 4 men - the captain, two light men and the bowman or caiman wrangler. In the guest boat, when guests go, is another captain and a guide with a light as well. If guests don't go, they only take one boat, and work must faster and longer.

That night, Brian D. was captain and Felix as guide in the guest boat. In the capture boat was Captain Telford, shine man Roland, leader Fernando and shine man Jose (pronounced Josie). I learned they'll switch around those roles every couple hours as to give each man the opportunity to capture and do the other roles. I asked them what to expect before we left, as they were gathering all the equipment. They acted pretty professional and matter of fact about as they tell me it all, too (I was impressed). Except then Felix tells me that sexing a caiman is compulsory and if I fail to do so, I won't be able to go on future trips. Of course, gathering data would not fall onto my shoulders, but allowing any and all to take part in the process is one of the many charms of the CP. Sexing a caiman involves a manual search, however, and I'm not that eager to be at one with the caimans, so I call Felix's bluff. Jose tells me of a joke that Peter played with sexing the caiman and how he made it seem like sexing was down to a taste test. Felix scolds Jose for giving it away. Those guys...

The guests were a couple from the UK, mostly quiet, but kind. The boys all looked after the guests well enough, without coddling them or making the outing into this Barnum and Bailey's event. The guests were able to take in the magnitude of the scenes without the smooth-talking and ooh's and aaaah's. They let the outing speak for itself; less was definitely more. One of the many beauties of tourism in Guyana, I think.

We headed down the Rupununi River from our main landing, and almost immediately caught a caiman. Fernando was the catch man. A caiman was spotted through eye shine and it stayed on the surface of the river long enough for Fernando to ease the snare around its neck and tighten the hold.

The caiman put up a small fight, and we were told they had to keep the caiman in the water until it was tired enough to not be of danger to anyone. So they held it on the snare wire as they moved the boat back and forth in the water, pulling the caiman around. It sounded and looked sort of harsh, but the guys assured us that it sounded a lot worse than it harmed. I found out later how true that was - the caiman's hide is THICK and STRONG! As are the caiman; we were also told that they usually won't catch a caiman on the banks because it could use the river bed as leverage to jump into the boat. Once the snare caught it secure enough, a firm snare pole went around the neck, too, and then Jose came up and taped the snout shut with electrical tape.

It was a recapture - for every new caiman they catch, they remove some of the scuits (tail or dorsal scales) so they are able to count which number it was. This one was capture #165. They took measurements, then jokingly called me to determine the sex. Ha ha, I don't think so. There's a slit, just past the beginning of the tail on the underbelly, and I watched as Jose and then Fernando stuck their finger in to feel for something (or nothing). "Male," they say, wiping their finger on their short pants.

This caiman sat so quietly and put up so little of a fight, I admit, it was sort of anticlimactic. Though, still, it was thrilling to run my hands down the underbelly of it, feeling as the squares of smooth scales moved around, and feel of the bumpy stretchy skin on it's sides. I accidentally brushed over 'the slit' and quickly move away. I think I heard Jose chuckle in the background.

The release of the caiman is the most exciting and unpredictable time. Ropes were slowly removed until it was just held by the snare pole and a rope put over the snout that could be pulled open from a tug (from far away). Once the tape was loosed, the snare was removed and all men ran back. I didn't honestly think a caiman would come after me, but still, I made sure I had my little flashlight on and looked behind me for available routes of escape. Fernando had asked me to shine the light from the boat, a task I'm sure was simply meant to keep me out of harm's way (the entire capture crew was equipped with headlights).

The caiman just sat there, facing the water, seemingly unaware that it was free to go. Roland slammed his hand down on the nose of one of the boats, scaring both the caiman and myself. It finally slid into the water. The second caiman capture was more exciting. This one was past 11 feet and put up a fight, snapping at the boat and everything!

The time came to sex this one, and Fernando and the rest teased. I figured I wasn't really opposed to it per se and I might as well do it now and catch them off guard and not have to get harped about it for enough time in the future. So, without further ado, I kneeled down, stretched out my ringed middle finger and dove in. "I don't feel anything," I say and pull out. "A girl, maybe?" Fernando says "Try it again," and I half think he's just teasing me, but also half think if I'm actually doing this I might as well be 100% sure. "What am I supposed to be feeling for - OH!" It's a male and I'm surprised by it and reflexively pull out quickly. "It's male," I report, unnecessarily. Jose confirms. And so, I sex a caiman. Yes, it was good for me.

Fernando announces to the guests that the crew will continue for a few hours, but their captain and guide will carry them back to CH now, if that's ok with them. He says they have space for me if I want. They have room for me in the action boat? Hell yeah! I jump in, excitedly, not caring that it's a school night or that my hand could really use some antibacterial gel. I get assigned shine man duty and sit in the back with Telford. We catch three more caimans that night. I felt the boat get pulled and thrashed about by two 11 footers and another smaller one. We see squirrel monkeys, iguanas, spectacle caimans, we also almost catch a capybara, and a school of piranha jump at our boat. The men laugh, sip coffee and catch and I diligently shine my light up and down the river until I can't keep my eyes open. A spectacular night.


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