Rupununi Natural Region: Rupununi River (Guyana)

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Rupununi Natural Region: Rupununi River (Guyana)

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The Rupununi is a natural region bordering the Brazilian Amazon in southwest Guyana. It is divided into northern Rupununi Wetlands and southern Rupununi Savanna by the Kanuku Mountains. The Rapununi River flows through the region before joining with the Essequibo River on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.


The Rupununi is a natural region bordering the Brazilian Amazon in southwestern Guyana. It is divided into the northern and southern Rupununi by the Kanuku Mountains. It is located within the Guyanan administrative region of Upper Takutu-Essequibo.

The Rupununi is one of Guyana's most unique and diverse ecosystems and among Earth's last significant wilderness areas. It is home to more than 5,400 known species, including 70% (1,414) of all vertebrates recorded in Guyana and many highly endangered species globally.

Rupununi River

The Rupununi River, also known by the local indigenous peoples as Raponani, flows through the region from south to north before joining with the Essequibo River on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Rapon is the name for the black-bellied whistling duck found along the river. The name originates from the Makushi language, an indigenous language of the Carib family spoken in Brazil, Guyana and Venezuela.

The Rupununi River is one of the main tributaries of the Essequibo River and originates in the Kanuku Mountains, located in the Upper Takutu-Essequibo region. The Rupununi drains the southern savanna, flowing near the Guyana-Brazil border, eventually feeding into the Essequibo.

Throughout the flood season, the river shares a watershed with the Amazon. During the rainy season, it is connected to the Takutu River by the flooded Pirara Creek, draining the vast Parima or Amaku Lake swamps.

The region surrounding the river primarily comprises savanna, wetlands, forest and low mountain ranges. Most people live within the southern savanna area, while the jungle-covered areas are only populated near major rivers.

Flora and Fauna

The areas in and surrounding the river are home to a great diversity of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems that harbor many species extirpated from other regions of South America. The Rupununi's freshwater ecoregions are areas of exceptional species richness comparable to that of Amazonia.

These include many iconic Amazonian species: the jaguar (Panthera onca), giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris), giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), and giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus).

Map of the Essequibo River drainage basin. The Rupununi Region is in the southwestern part of the country.

Map depicting the Essequibo River drainage basin. The Rupununi Region is in the southwestern part of the country.

Northern Rupununi Wetlands

The Northern Rupununi wetlands region is considered one of the most diverse areas in South America. These wetlands constitute a unique and highly diverse ecosystem, including seasonally flooded forests, wetlands, and savannas.

The region is located on the eastern margin of the more extensive savanna system, which extends into Brazil and is separated by the Ireng and Takutu rivers that come together to form the Rio Branco.

The Rupununi River and its tributaries store enormous quantities of water in the rainy season and slowly release it into the Essequibo River, limiting the severity of flooding events in coastal Essequibo communities.

Southern Rupununi Savanna

The savannas of the Southern Rupununi are part of an extensive, biodiversity-rich region in southwestern Guyana: the Rupununi Savanna. This area is separated from the North Rupununi by the forested Kanuku Mountains Protected Area.

The savanna supports a high diversity of species, many of which are highly endangered or threatened. One of the reasons why so many species thrive here is because of the wide variety of habitat types.

Indigenous peoples have inhabited the Rupununi for thousands of years and play essential roles in ensuring the area's biodiversity is well protected.

Today, Wai-Wai and Wapishana peoples (and some Macushi) live in the southern savanna, maintaining some traditional ways of life. Families rely on fish and a limited variety of food crops, especially cassava, cultivated in shifting agriculture plots surrounding villages.

Habitats of the Southern Rupununi Savanna include forests, rocky outcrops, open savanna and wetlands.

  • Gallery Forests: These forests grow on the banks of rivers and streams flowing through the savanna. They provide refuge for birds, mammals and reptiles. The soils here are more fertile and have a more reliable water supply, supporting local people's biodiversity and lifestyles.

  • Rocky Outcrops: This unusual feature is only found in the Southern Rupununi. They rise out of the ground from underlying ancient rock and have uncommon, specialized vegetation. Forests are also associated with these outcrops.

  • Open Savanna: In the dry season, wetland areas recede, and the landscape becomes an open savanna. Sandpaper trees (Curatella americana) provide nesting sites for the critically endangered Red Siskin (Spinus cucullatus). Byrsonima verbascifolia, known as kenamanarare (Macushi) and several other savanna plants are important for medicinal use. Soils in the open savanna are poor in nutrients and unsuitable for large-scale agriculture.

  • Wetlands: The savanna transforms during the rainy season - permanent wetlands expand, and vast areas flood, becoming huge seasonal wetlands. These wetlands absorb, filter and store vast amounts of freshwater, recharging aquifers and keeping the surrounding forests and rivers healthy. They also provide foraging or breeding grounds for many animals, such as fish and migratory birds, such as the Jabirus (Jabiru mycteria) and Black caimans (Melanosuchus niger).

  • Bush Islands: Patches of forest that grow on higher areas in the savanna, bush islands bring connectivity to the savanna landscape. They are also home to many birds not living in the rainforests bordering the savanna.

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