National Geographic : 1980 Jul
from Colombia to Argentina and Brazil to Peru, is still on the lookout for this conspicu ous beast that brings the equivalent of three months' wages with one lucky shot. Lack of knowledge has hampered effec tive action to save the giant otter. After 300 years the animal's habits remained as much a mystery as ever. To change this, I sought a place where giant otters still survive in good numbers. I would try to record every aspect of their behavior in the wild. Suriname, where giant otters have been protected since 1954, is probably the only place left where they are still a common sight. Most of Suriname's 402,000 people live along the coast, leaving the inland rain forests virtually uninhabited. The Forestry Department's help in organizing the upriver expeditions was vital to my success.* Suriname is a melting pot of African and Asian peoples. Most interesting and endear ing to me are the people of the hinterland the shy Amerindians and the extroverted Bush Negroes, descended from 18th century slaves who escaped to the bush. For boatmen, my obvious choice was Bush Negroes, expert in maneuvering their long dugout canoes through foaming rapids. But first I had to master Taki-Taki, a pidgin language based on English and Dutch. In 1977 I met Mofo Soiso, and he soon taught me his language and shared his knowledge of the rivers and the bush. Mofo means "mouth," and his was always split in a wide grin, although at first he was puzzled by this foreign woman searching wilderness rivers for the bigi watra dagoo (big water dog), which wasn't even good to eat. At the beginning of my study I caught only fleeting glimpses of otters diving into the water, their sunbathing abruptly interrupt ed. I quickly learned that the animals were active only during the day. Sometimes I stumbled on groups of seven or more as they swam side by side down the river. Once I saw 16 otters together, all charging toward the boat as I imitated their nasal barks. Most of the time only snorts of alarm or wavering screams told me their whereabouts in the thick undergrowth. Even though the otters easily eluded me, they left signs behind of their presence. Staking out a territory, they deposit single *Dr. Duplaix's research was funded by the National Geographic Society, the World Wildlife Fund, the Rare Animal Relief Effort, and the New York Zoologi cal Society; the latter cosponsored the project with STINASU, Suriname Nature Conservation Foundation.