Auyan Tepui 2014: Expedition to Salto Churum, introducing Tepui Watch 2014


For the past several years, I have undertaken a series of investigations and inquiries into the biodiversity of the unique tepui ecosystems in the Guianan Highlands of Northern South America. This investigation has led me to produce two published articles on the subject of tepui summit fauna and conservation. The success of these two academic papers (a third is on the way) has encouraged me to increase and expand my efforts in this area, identify research gaps, areas of possible danger to the long term survival of tepui summit biota, and seek to identify work and strategies which can be undertaken to mitigate future problems in the unique Pantepui ecosystem.

In 2012 I initiated a camera trapping pilot study with the assistance of Alberto Pomares, Vittorio Assandria, Paul Stanley, and three expert Pemon guides Arturo Berti, Santos, and Nixson. The success of the pilot study in obtaining photographs of tepui summit animals led to the need increase the parameters of the camera trapping efforts on the tepui summits. After some discussion with the expedition members from the 2012 expedition regarding the future of camera trapping and survey efforts in and around Auyan Tepui, I graciously accepted their invitation to accompany the team on the 2014 Laime Trail 4 expedition to the Churum Falls, on the summit of Auyan Tepui.

The purpose of the expedition was to follow the Laime Trail from the southern access point on Auyan  up to the Salto Churum, the waterfall of the Rio Churum which has never been photographed from the summit. This trail was established by Laime in the 1940s and 1950s, and roughly proceeds along the survey points established by G. H. H. Tate in the late 1930s with the Phelps expedition. However, the trail differs from Tates expedition route in one important way- the Laime trail goes further into the interior of Auyan Tepui, into places that have not been actively scientifically surveyed. The portion of the trail we trail up to Campo Dragon is fairly well surveyed, compared to the more northern portions of Auyan, and represents areas of tourist activity (approximately 500 tourists per year), with well-established camps up to the second wall. The areas past the second wall and into the tepui meadows up to the Salto Churum is not visited by tourists. Amazingly, our team is the first in the history of tepui exploration to photograph the Salto Churum from the summit of Auyan Tepui. All previous photographs of this waterfall have been taken from the air overflying the Churum River and its waterfall. While traveling across this area, the team also surveyed the area that Laime had traveled, and looked for traces of his more permanent camps on the summit. While on this trek, we also tested out three new camera traps produced by Moultrie, the D 444 and the A-5 camera trap. These cameras were used along with the Moultrie D55 IR Gamespay cameras used during the 2012 pilot study to actively camera trap the summit of Auyan when time and weather permitted.

The expedition had two major components; the overflight and aerial surveillance of the trail, and the actual trek itself. Once these two components were successfully completed, it was decided to follow up with a long term camera trapping survey of Auyan Tepui, entitled Tepui Watch 2014. 

I present here the video introduction to this work, a fantastic synopsis of both the adventure, science, and discovery which came from this expedition, authored by Alberto Pomares, expert photographer and esteemed expedition member.

Long term Camera Trap surveillance of Auyan Tepui: Tepui Watch 2014

Project Brief 

The objective of this project is to combine long term camera trapping surveillance of the Laime Trail with transect surveys of the southern access point of Auyan Tepui to develop a baseline biodiversity measurement of the tepui. The project utilizes a small network of trail cameras in four different ecosystems to photograph both endemic tepui summit fauna and obtain evidence of lowland vertebrates on the tepui summits, which have been observed and documented by Venezuelan scientists but not formally published in academia. The project combines field research with technology and methodology transfers to indigenous guides who will be trained in the use of trail cameras to monitor the tepui environment. Data gathered from the transect survey and camera traps will be made available on at Relevant discoveries will be submitted for publication in a peer reviewed academic journal. If successful, the model developed can be utilized across the entire Pantepui region, focusing on little explored tepuis, and close research and exploration gaps after gap analysis is conducted. 
The project has three phases.
1) Overflight and aerial surveillance and reconnaissance of the route in December 2013
2) An expedition and field implementation of the traps in January 2014
3) Retrieval and servicing in late and 2015, with additional expeditions into to unsurveyed areas of Auyan.

There is one goal in this project; determine the sum total biodiversity of the Pantepui. Only when the sum total biodiversity is established can successful long term conservation strategies be devised to ensure the survival of Pantepui summit biota.

Survey Area: Auyan Tepui

Auyan tepui is the largest of the Tepui (flat topped mountain plateau) in terms of continuous summit area (700 square kilometres) with a slope area of 200 square kilometres. Officially discovered in the mid-1930s and first explored in 1937, the summit hosts the greatest diversity of ecosystems and animal life when compared to the other tepui summits. The herpetofauna of Auyan is diverse compared to its sister tepuis, with 27 species of lizards and snakes represented on the summit of Auyan, many endemic to either Pantepui or Auyan proper. The mammalian diversity has never been fully assessed, though it is considered depauperate compared to lowland mammalian diversity due to a restriction in available niches on tepui summits in general. Avifaunal diversity is extremely high, mostly represented by song birds, many with Andean affinities. Auyan Tepui is host to four types of vegetational assemblages; pioneer assemblages, tepui summit meadows and woody scrub, evergreen forests (mostly along river systems and areas with large soil deposits) and mountain forests on the talus slopes.

A vegetational map of Auyan Tepui. A/Vs-4) Ombrophilous mesothermic shrubland over rocky terrain, A 4) Ombrophilous mesothermic shrubland B-4) Ombrophilous mesothermic forest Vs/A-4) Vegetation covering rocky terrain and Ombrophilous mesothermic shrubland, Vs-4) Ombrophilous vegetation covering rocky terrain

They survey area is the southern entrance point on Auyan Tepui, from Guayaraca to the Churun Falls. This is an identical rout to the 2012 expedition to Auyan Tepui, during which camera trapping conducted over a limited period of time resulted in positive captures of the crab-eating fox Cerdocyon thous thous (Barkoczy 2013).While the Laime trail extends beyond the Churum into the interior of Auyan, the 2014 expedition stopped at the Salto Churum due to time and resource restrictions.  Our trek took us through four major vegetational assemblages, however we did not encounter A-4 type Ombrophilous mesothermic shrubland, and very little B-4  ombrophilous mesothermic forest.  


The overflight of Auyan Tepui was conducted in December 2014 by Vittorio Assandria and Alberto Pomares. The goal of the overflight was to rapidly scout out trails and topographical routes along the Laime trail into Churum falls. An addendum to the overflight was to overfly the centre of Auyan Tepui and the western portion of the tepui known as the Valle Encantata, or the Enchanted Valley. Information gained from this flight includes photographic records to analyze vegetational cover and classify the extent of the galley forests, tepui meadows, and river systems on the summit of Auyan. With the inclusion of GPS coordinates, trails and areas of interest can be georeferenced to produce a basic vegetational map of the summit of Auyan at a resolution which is currently not feasible with satellite imagery. Areas of interest include the central portion of Auyan which rises as a dome like structure, and appears to be fire damaged. The central portions of Auyan Tepui have not been mapped in detail, reconnaissance and georeferencing of the lagoon and river systems is a top priority for future exploration and camera trap placement. This survey was conducted successfully and the flight was filmed, with video of both the Laime trail up to the Rio Churum and the Valle Encantada. One area of interest was the existence of a river which seems to disappear into solid rock. This area was selected as a place of interest, and was made into a base camp for exploring a look-out for the Salto Churum. 

Overflight images of the Churum Falls and Churum River, taken by Alberto Pomares and Vittorio Assandria during reconnaissance of the expedition route

Camera trapping methodology

The camera trapping methodology will follow the norms and guidelines of camera trapping studies outlined in established academic circles, with minor alterations based on field and time constraints. The 2012 camera trapping study utilized two Moultrie D55 IR Gamespy Cameras. This study uses the two Moultrie D55 IR Gamespy Cameras used in the initial study, and newer model camera manufactured by Moultrie; two D 444 8 MP Low Glow camera trap, which is compatible with field placed solar panels, and one Moultrie 5A Low Glow Game Camera. As this is the first time this particular brand is subjected to the rigors of functioning for long periods of time on the rain soaked tepui summits, three different models with different power requirements and shutter speeds were selected so a post field study analysis can be conducted on the performance of the cameras. This study will utilize more trail cameras, placed across a broad spectrum of tepui ecosystems. The traps will be placed in the following three areas on Auyan: 1) forested talus slopes, 2) accessible human used trails and 3) remote locations on the tepui summit which reflect ecosystem diversity.

1) Talus slope monitoring, Campo Guayaraca, 1000 metre elevation, Penon 1500 metre elevation.(Completed and currently being conducted)
Talus slope monitoring will create a distribution map of the lowland animals which can range into higher elevation mountain forests with tepui-like floral assemblages. As global warming pushes the climate envelope some 500-700 metres toward the summits, animals photographed on the slopes may become future invasives within the ascending climate envelope. Any seed dispersers (such as Cerdocyon thous or Nasua nasua) photographed on the talus slopes may contribute to the movement of lowland plant species upwards to the summit. Understanding where these animals are spatially and extrapolating their requirements and behaviors can help to produce effective conservation strategies.  Due to the success of the previous pilot study at this elevation in mid elevation forests, the camera are placed at 1000 metres and 1500 metres, so that the complete range of the talus slope forests can be monitored. A blog post detailing both the camera trapping work at Guayaraca and Penon will be ready soon once data is organized and results are compared to previous expeditionary work and mammal surveys of Auyans talus slopes.
2) Trail Monitoring (Currently being conducted)
Monitoring faunal distribution along human trails and rest sites can be useful in determining if human activity is having an impact on the behavior of tepui mammals. This phenomenon is discussed in both Havelkova et al (2006) and Robovsky et al (2007) in regard to the presence of coatis on the tepui summits. Although both authors eventually dismiss the notion of human enticement in tepui coati distribution, the phenomena has been photographically documented in two separate species (Nasua nasua and Cerdocyon thous). The target areas in this instance are within 100 metres of known rest sites, including Campo Naranja, Penon, and El Oso. Suitable areas should be adjacent to these camps, but not intrusive on the trail or itself. A paper exploring the distribution of coatis on the summit of Auyan is currently being finalized.

3) Summit forests, Remote location Monitoring (Pending)
The vast majority of Auyan has never been completely surveyed by scientists due to a variety of factors including expense and the harsh tepui summit environment. Some of these regions have been visited for short periods of time by expedition teams in the form of temporary camps, raging in operation from 1 to 5 days. During these periods, sightings of large lowland animals have occurred which have never been investigated in detail. Verification of these reports would change our understanding of tepui summit biology, as large mammals are considered absent from the tepui summits. Target areas include the northern portion of Auyan, the Valle Encantada in the west, and gallery forests on the central portion of Auyan. Getting to these locations will require establishing new trails  north from Salto Churum, as well sending field data for review and correlation of camera trap sites with satellite and overflight data. As this is new territory, GIS analysis will be need to be conducted to optimize efforts on the remote and unexplored portions of Auyan. 

Arturo Berti, the master camera trapper, Tepui guide, and all around renaissance man of Kamarata.

Notes on Travel in Venezuela: How to do it right.

While host to amazing biodiversity and beautiful national parks, Venezuela is not an easy country to travel in for those accustomed to problem free, resource available travel. This is not a trip to Europe for the luxury minded tourist. Venezuela is an industrializing nation, host to the problems faced by industrializing nations across the globe- poverty, crime, a lack of resources, and intermittent infrastructure. If any reader is interested in going to Canaima National Park or the Atlantic coast of Venezuela, it can be done with the proper preparation and contacts. I highly recommend that interested parties contact me, or better, get in contact with Paul Stanley at Angel Eco-tours. This expedition would not have been possible with out the assistance and support of Paul Stanley, in terms of in field support, logistics,and friendship. For anyone interested in an adventure trip to Venezuela, Angel Ecotours is a must- the company has more than 20 years experience guiding both tourists and scientists safely through this country. Angel Eco-tours works hand in hand with Angel Conservation, a NGO which is improving the lives of the Pemon of the Kamarata valley through infrastructure improvements and getting medical care to the Pemon. The benefit of working with either Angel Eco-tours or Angel Conservation is that as well as an authentic eco-tour experience with experts, the adventure minded tourist is supporting the sustainable development of the area being visited. Its a unique positive sum situation.

Travel Log

On January 7th, we arrived at Uruyen from Ciudad Bolivar. There, we organized our supplies and prepped for the expedition. We utilized approximately 14 porters for our gear, or 1.5 porters per person. To minimize the stress and weight carried by the porters, we set a max weight limit of 30 kilograms. Before the trip, Mary and I agreed to lower our weight limit to 30 kilograms between the two of us, or 7.5 kilos per person. We also halved the amount of dry food by accident upon departure from the U.S. Both these steps were absolutely necessary. While 7.5 kilos per person seems light, over a long period of time hiking over rocky terrain for several kilometers a day became extremely arduous, and giving the equipment to the porters proved very necessary. We discovered that the amount of food we brought, when combined with what we cooked per meal, was completely sufficient for us.

January 8th- Set out from Uruyen for Guayaraca late morning (around 10 am). The terrain is extremely steep, though easily navigated. We reached the camp at Guayaraca toward the evening, approximately 5pm, with enough time to set up camp and cook dinner, as well as take some late evening photographs. The hike from the valley floor to Guayaraca took us through a savana environment into the forests of the tepui talus slopes, defined by a mixture of tall trees, gallery forests with mixed vegetation. Animal were difficult to see, with the exception of birds, and a few small amphibians and reptiles. Mosquitoes were not encountered in serious numbers. The camp at Guayaraca was a sandy embankment near a small river, enclosed by forests.

Daniel and Mary halfway to Guayaraca
Pemon guides and porters relax at Campo Guayaraca. Note the sandy soil, and small trees typical of this camp.

Camera Trap notes at Guayaraca
As the Guayaraca camp was the location of the 2012 capture of the crab eating fox Cerdocyon thous thous, we were excited to set up traps at this location. Two D55 IR Gamespy Cameras were set up, as well as the two new 444 cameras, in the same location where the fox was previously photographed. The traps were baited with left over food scraps from dinner, comprising sauced rice and pastas. The set up was filmed, and the traps were deployed. The next day, the traps were removed and the SD cards and area scrutinized. The results were completely negative, and no bait was consumed. Upon follow up discussion, a variable was discovered. In the successful 2012 camera set up, raw onions were used as bait. The 2012 crew was surprised to find that raw onions worked to entice a fox, and surprised that cooked highly odoriferous food failed. We concluded that the bait had the opposite effect as anticipated- instead of attracting local wildlife, the bait repelled them. Given the dietary preferences of local wildlife for vegetation, insects, and small vertebrates, this conclusion was not entirely surprising. It is possible that the human impact on Auyan, with only 500 or so visitors per year, is so minimal that local animals have not become accustomed to human food, and will not perceive it as edible.

Jan 9, Campo Penon

An all day hike from Guayaraca  up to the next talus slope camp, an area known as Penon. Penon camp is located under a large overhanging rock, and has been used as a camp since the initial exploration of Auyan. Vegetation at this point starts to noticeably change, though lowland assemblages are still prevalent. A series of streams and waterfalls can be found near the camp, even in the dry season. Small trees growing amid large boulder define this area, and in places talus slope and mountain forests dominate up to the escarpments which define the entrance to the summit of Auyan known as La Ventana. Penon is covered in graffiti placed by tourists going to the summit- most of it is fairly recent, with attempts made to create fake graffiti indicating that Jimmi Angel was present at this camp. The bulk of the graffiti seems to come from the mid 1990s.
The fauna at Penon was discussed by myself and Arturo, and it seems that the most common species found at this location are coatis, opossums, and rodents, though none we sighted. There are numerous monkey trails, and according to Arturo capuchin monkey are present in large numbers in this area, and also reside on the escarpments of Auyan. The food source for these animals includes wild pineapples, which we saw on the hike from Guayaraca to Penon. This is interesting to note, as capuchin monkeys were apparently not observed by Tate during the initial explorations.Tate noted instead that tufted capucjin monkeys Cebus apella were abundant near the Rio Caroni.

Campo Penon, with sleeping niches cut out under the rock overhang. A group photo seems appropriate

A small river at Penon. The area outside the camp is heavily forested, and extremely steep. Small waterfalls cascade all across the talus slopes of Auyan.

Camera Trap Notation

Camera traps were not deployed at Penon due to a combination of factors, including limited time at the camp, leading to our inability to sufficiently explore the surrounding area. While there are undoubtedly trails and areas in which to photograph an inventory wildlife, Penon is an extremely steep area, composed of deep gorges, from which numerous waterfalls and rivers flow. There is now a camera trapping exerciser underway to survey this area for a month, with a specific target for obtaining photographic evidence of capuchin monkeys.

Libertador Jan 10

Libertador is the first summit camp, located approximately 50 or so metres from the cave at La Ventana, the entrance point to Auyan. The hike from Penon to Libertador is rather difficult, and requires the use of fixed ropes to transverse the large rocks which liter the trail. Frequent scrambling is requires, and the trek is difficult. This area is composed entirely of rocky terrain, with trees growing from deep chasms between the rocks. Vegetation here is extremely complex, and the area is a transition zone. To gain entrance to the summit, one must first enter a cave and cross a rock bridge made of fallen boulders, then exit the cave and enter the summit.
 First and foremost, the site is breathtakingly beautiful, with a view of the underlying valley, rock spires, and clouds beneath. In terms of flora, Libertador is extremely interesting. The vegetation is deuded, with a few exceptions. First, complex assemblages a few metres across dot the terrain, and are formed where plants have obtained root in substrate which lies in shallow pools. These isolated islands of vegetation have diverse populations of mosses and lichens, and well as a myrian of carnivorous plans and woody bonnetia trees. The Libertador camp itself is located on top of a 30 to 30 metre diameter pean deposit which is extremely deep, and underlies a complet series of bogs, again with a complex and diverse floral assemblage. This area would be fantastic for future peat dating, as the peat moss is possibly a metre deep in some places, and very old. 

Alberto, Mary and I make summit
Camera Trapping notes

The Faunal elements of this area are largely not present at the summit rim, although in the pools which underlie the vegetational isolates, a tremendous amount of tadpoles of an undetermined frog species were present. Camera traps were not deployed at this location due time constraints.

One of our youngest porters enjoying the view. This was his first trek to the summit.

Underwater photograph of a tadpole at the summit camp. The shallow pools of water held an amazing diversity of life

Libertador to El Oso, intermediate camp. Jan 11- 12

The hike from Libertador to El Oso comprised approximately six hours of hiking through rough terrain in the first two hours, followed by a trek through a eroded rockscape punctuated by small isolated vegetational islands, then into a dry river bed which was again highly eroded, with little substrate. Vegetation in this area changed from the moon scape typical of Roraima tepui into areas with more substrate, which developed into bogs and marshland dominated by woody bonnetia trees, carnivorous plants, and stegolepis. As we approached the El Oso rock formation and Naranja camp, we stopped to investigate the rock, and found anchor bolts had been placed there for lead climbing. 
After Campo Naranja was reached, we proceeded to an intermediate camp between Naranja and Dragon, following the path of a long meandering river which leads from Dragon. This area was composed of riparian gallery forests which made up the majority of the valley. The river was devoid of any sign s of fish which allegedly are present further into the northern portion of the plateau, north of the Churum River.
The river itself was strewn with boulders, though dry season conditions made the water extremely still. Various species of water beetles were present, though we observed no other aquatic life in this area.

Two examples of tepui summit landscape. The top image is from the intermediate camp between Libertador and Campo Dragon. There is an amazing array of different ecosystems on the summit of Auyan, from eroded moonscapes to dense forests.

Camera trap notes

This place seemed like a good area to camera trap, and we had sufficient time to place and bait the traps. In this area we placed the traps along forested sections of the river to entice animals wandering or foraging parallel to the river. We used two types of bait- raw vegetables, and odoriferous left over cooked food, to test our hypothesis that tepui summit fauna will avoid cooked camp food. The results next morning showed that the left over food was untouched, though the raw vegetables were strewn about, indicting something had visited the site. No photos were taken, and the traps failed to fire. We determined at this point that cooked leftovers were a failure for a bait source, and decided to abandon their use in later camera trap set up. This site is of future interest, as the riparian ecosystem seems conducive for animal use.

Along the hike, we looked for traces of Laimes activity on the summit of Auyan Tepui. Allegedly, at this location, Laime established a food drop at the El Oso rock formation, though this is debatable. It may be that Laimes summit camp was in fact in a different location. We did encounter an aged metal box on the way to the intermediate camp, which according to the Pemon expedition leader Santos belonged to Laime, and was used by him to store supplies on Auyan.

The summit terrain of the South of Auyan- diverse ecosystems across a rocky landscape.

Dragon Jan 13-15

The hike to Campo Dragon took the team a few hours over easy terrain through forests teeming with life, insects, and a tremendous diversity of epiphytes. Arriving at Dragon at mid day, we had plenty of time to explore the surrounding territory. The vegetation at dragon was dense, with high canopy gallery forests, and shrubby plants near the banks of the river. There is a clear differentiation between the forests and the banks of the river, evidence that we were in a dry season lull on Auyan. The steep sandy banks demonstrated that the river is much higher during the wet season. Campo Dragon was the site of a good deal of animal activity. Upon entering the camp, we immediately saw a tepui tinamou (Crypturellus ptaritepui), colloquially know as a gallia de la montana, a Guiana Shield endemic, and member of the only known flying ratites birds. Animals could be heard both at night, and during the day, but remained visually elusive. The banks of the river at Dragon is composed of extremely fine grained pink quartzite sand. A large number of enormous quartzite boulders litter the landscape here, though they are all grey black in coloration. This grey-black color is caused by cyano bacteria which has colonized the surface of the rock, making it appear dark and producing an accelerated process of bioerosion. 
The river at Dragon is strewn with boulders, which the river itself dips under. These outcroppings overlay a deep and extensive aquatic cave system, which this river flows through. It is truly a unique river system, and potentially hazardous to cross when flooded during the wet season, due to the deep grooves, unpredictable eddies, and uneven surface. However, during the dry season, the top of the rocks stay dry and the surface is level enough in areas that helicopters frequently land here to take travelers off the summit.
Aquatic life here is abundant compared to the down stream camps. We observed several species of aquatic insects at this location, including the hellgramite of a large dobsonfly (subfamily Corydalinae). There are no fish in this section of the river. Though fish have been reported from Auyan Tepui in the lagoons further north, it is possible that the rocky river bottoms, boulders, and cave systems make it impossible for anything other than insects to live in this river system. Alternatively, this could be dry season sampling bias. 

A tremendous diversity of aquatic insects were present on the summit of Auyan, in virtually every rocky pool, stream, and lagoon. Above are three photos taken. On the left, the hellgramite of a dobsonfly. Centre is a nymph, and on the right and aquatic beetle. 

As it was the dry season, the river was easily navigated by foot at this point, and we proceeded up stream. Approximately 50 metres or so from camp, we encountered a sand bar which was littered with footprints. We could easily distinguish three distinct mammal footprints, one apparently from an opossum, one from an yet unidentified species of carnivora, and one from a species of deer. We also encountered numerous bird foot prints, and the trail of a large snake. We estimate that the foot prints were made very recently in the preceding few days, as a previous rain would have erased the tracks had they been older than a week.

Upon our departure from Campo Dragon, we observed a small opossum rummaging around in the camp, which while skittish and nervous, showed little fear of humans. The species was Didelphis imperfecta, a species of opossum which is endemic to the Guiana Shield.

Camera trapping notes and foot print notes

Campo Dragon is an excellent place to both place camera traps, and to explore the biodiversity of tepui forests and bogs. To the east of Dragon lie tepui meadows, to the west lie forests. The area represents an perennial source of water, and by rough calculation 80% of Auyan's local mammal community should be located within 6 or so kilometres of it, though in reality a series of small streams exist throughout the tepui summit. 
We set up five camera traps in Campo Dragon, approximately 10 to 20 metres from camp. We decided to use raw carrot peels for bait. At Dragon, we got positive camera trap results, obtaining photos of the opossum Didelphis imperfect, probably the same individual that visited the camp later that morning. 

The opossum Didelphis imperfecta photographed at Dragon using Moultrie camera traps.

Of the three sets of tracks, the most interesting are the deer footprints. First and foremost, there have been practically zero sightings or records of any species of large herbivore on the summit of any tepui recorded in literature, with the exception of a few notes by Michelangeli, Huber, and Tate regarding seeing tapir footprints at certain locations on the summit. Tate records one sighting of a fully antlered buck at 3000 feet, indicating a talus slope sighting, not a summit observation. The implication here is multifold. First, it indicates that the tepui summits can host the kind of mammal populations seen at the lowlands, a very bold claim which runs contrary to current scientific literature, though in line with sightings and observations by Laime and Michelangeli. Secondly, it speaks to the incomplete sampling and surveying of tepui ecosystems, leading to knowledge gaps. Thirdly, the presence of deer on the tepuis came as a surprise to the Pemon, who have never seen deer on the summits before. After some 70 years of tourism, albeit light, and subsequent Pemon exploration of certain trails on the summit, it is clear that the Pemon themselves do not have a complete understanding of tepui summit fauna. This should not really come as a surprise- the Pemon only go to the Tepui summits when guiding tourists, and as a result tend to stick to the same trails and areas with which they are familiar, and know to be safe. The reality of Pemon exploration of the summit became apparent as we went to the next camp to cut a trail to Salto Churum, an area which has never before been explored.


These four sets of prints were found on a sand bank at Campo Dragon. Updates on the exact species the tracks belong to will be presented in a subsequent post. In a broad sense, the top are from a mammalian carnivore, the third from a deer, and the last from a small animal, possibly a possum.

Salto Churum Camp

We left Dragon and went up past an area known as the Second Wall, a 300 meter change in elevation which took us through a rocky terrain interspersed with the last of the gallery forests we were to encounter on this trip. Once we made it out of the second wall, we entered a vast expanse of tepui bog marsh, in which the vegetation was made up almost exclusively of Stegolepis, Heliamphora, Bonnetia,and other small woody plants and complex vegetation. Walking in this terrain is arduous. The entire area is flooded, with peat bogs comprising a thick carpet upon which substrate accrues and plants grow. Solid surfaces were almost impossible to find, and everyone was relieved when we encountered slabs or rocks which supplied sure footing. After hours trekking through this botanically fascinating yet torturous terrain, we made camp near a river which disappears into a rock face. This area was chosen for two reasons; to investigate the river which from the air seems to disappear to nowhere, and because it seemed to be a convenient location in which to place a base camp which is right next to the Salto Churum with a source of fresh water. The idea was to get to the Salto Churum, photograph it, and then move up and explore the Rio Churum.

And then the weather turned unpleasant. An impenetrable fog, together with a consistent light rain made hiking impossible. The fog limited visibility to a few metres, which was not sufficient to find a trail to look at or view the waterfall. In our down time, we looked around the camp, photographed the local plants, and rested. On the third day, we finally got a break in the weather, and were able to cut a trail to the Salto. Although from the overflight the ground looked level, Arturo found that the path was bordered by a 6 metre drop in a number of locations, and we had to scout our way around this drops to a level area.
We managed to find a path to a look out, and waited for the fog and low lying clouds to clear. After 45 minutes our patience paid off, and we could view the Salto Churum in all its glory, from the summit. This was a rather historical moment, as we were the first expedition team to photograph the falls from the summit of Auyan, instead of from the air. There have been other people to photograph the falls, and I highly recommend that a view of this page to see the difficulties and technology necessary to produce 3D images of this amazing area. Our mission was accomplished at this point- we left the Auyan Tepui with a deep sense of satisfaction; we had hiked the Laime Trail, seen evidence of large mammals on its summit, used our camera traps to photograph its wildlife, and been the first to photograph the Salto Churum from the summit. 
Salto Churum, through fog, photographed by Alberto Pomares

Arturo, two guides, and Vittorio in the Churum river, mere feet from the edge of the Salto Churum
Expedition Exit

At this point, we contacted our helicopter for an exit. Like everything else in Venezuela, and when traveling in general, the helicopter was quite late to our pick up near the river at the final camp, due to logistics and weather. This worked out in our favor, however.
Under normal circumstances, we would take a quick 6 minute ride back to the southern entrance point, and be back to Uruyen. However, the weather that direction turned nasty, so we had to head north. We loaded up, and took an amazing tour of the summit of Auyan Tepui toward Angel Falls, crossing more meadows, lagoons, dense forest, deep canyons, and unexplored terrain. We flew past  Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, and had a beautiful clear view of the falls. It took us nearly 45 minutes to then head south, and we had a fantastic view of the slopes of Auyan and the rest of Canaima. We saw places no one explored before, places untrodden by human feet. Gigantic trees litter the slopes of Auyan on the eastern side of the talus slopes, and hundreds of small waterfalls proceed from its myriad of escarpments. It is amazing to see this area- places so close to us, yet unexplored and untouched by man simply due to the difficulty in getting to these locations, and the lack of public interest in funding large scale expeditions. The eastern talus slopes and summit of Auyan remain unexplored. The scope of the task to preserve this location is almost unimaginable. With the realities of global warming becoming more apparent everyday, it is vital that we work to save the biodiversity of these places, and yet so much of nature remains unsurveyed. We risk loosing a critical portion of the biosphere before we even know what we have lost- effectively loosing our own Lost World to the inevitable crawl of destruction that human societal evolution brings to the natural world. Its difficult not to wax poetic about this sad fact, after seeing it first hand.
Angel Falls, as seen from our helicopter


The parameters of the expedition were completed- we accomplished our mission of hiking to the Salto Churum. What is most critical about this expedition is that it has not ended- it is being continued in survey form by two Pemon guides, led by Arturo Berti. Arturo assisted with the first 2012 camera trapping expedition, in which we discovered the crab-eating fox at Guayaraca. He then spearheaded the 2014 camera trapping with us on Auyan, and is now undertaking the first year long moving camera trap transect survey of Auyan. At this time, he has completed the first step in this process, the placement of five camera traps in Guayaraca, and has moved the traps up to the higher altitude camp an Penon. This project will continue to grow with the support of people interested in keeping the tepuis alive and healthy, and contributing to Pemon stewardship of their land. 
We learned a few critical things from this expedition, all of which will support our camera trapping campaign on the summit, as well as efforts to preserve and support both the Kamarta Pemon community and the tepuis in general. First, there is a tremendous interest by the Pemon to explore the tepui summits, protect their biodiversity, and regulate tourism to avoid damage to their lands. This must be followed up on, as the Pemon are in the best position, of anyone in the world, to safeguard their inheritance. Only by working with these people, and listening to their detailed knowledge of the region, can an accurate survey of the tepuis be produced. Thus, first and foremost, research gaps and biological knowledge must be cross-referenced with the Pemon to assure accuracy. To do otherwise is to ignore the most knowledgeable people on earth, which is patently idiotic. 
Secondly, camera trapping is an effective method of surveying the biodiversity of the tepuis in terms of large animals. The Guayaraca campaign produced tremendous results, which will be discussed in a subsequent blog post, though suffice to say the results average one picture per day. When camera trapping is combined with the knowledge and expertise of Pemon guides, the results are even more impressive. This technique can be adapted to the 50+ tepuis in the Guiana Shield, and the results will probably be extremely enlightening. 
Thirdly, we have demonstrated that Auyan Tepui maintains a greater diversity of large animals then previously thought, and that diversity is somewhat cryptic. It is cryptic due to exploration gaps, bias in scientific literature which omits research from Venezuelan scientists and the knowledge of indigenous peoples, and the difficulty of maintaining a long term survey effort on a tepui summit. Luckily, the methods developed by this expedition, and by the work of Tepui Watch 2014, we can eliminate the cause of of these gaps, and fully explore new avenues of scientific investigation and conservation of the tepuis of the Guiana Shield.