Most people are happy the rains have begun. Farmers especially can now till the land and sow their crops in anticipation of healthy bumper produce in the coming months. Streams that had dried out because of the intense heat and lack of rain are now flowing again. Hikers who converged on waterfalls only to find a bare rock face without water can now look forward to their respective destination falls.
Some people are not so happy the water is flowing again. Caverns in the Northern Range can be very precarious when there is rain. Not only do rock falls pose a threat to those who enter into these subterranean worlds, but the unpredictability of rivers at this time is cause for serious concern. One cavern can appear to be quite safe when the sun is shining, but suddenly there can be a rush of water from its mouth that had been building with overnight rains in the hills.
The Oropouche Cavern in Cumaca is one such area prone to sudden rise in water levels. During the past intense dry season, there was reprieve when levels were at an all-time low. Not only hikers, but poachers had easy and trouble-free access to the interior of the cavern. Instead of having to brave waist-high water and possible wading in some parts, they merely walked quite comfortably in ankle-deep water.
A large colony of the guacharo or oilbird (steatornis caripensis) inhabits the ledges and roof of this cavern. Poachers had a profitable period during this dry time to harvest those birds that were in easy reach on ledges along the immediate walls of the cavern. One report said two bags of birds were brought out of Cumaca on one occasion. Another said oilbird was the novelty sale to motorists passing by at the Aripo junction.
At one time attempts were made to block the entrance to the Oropouche Cavern by stretching wire across the mouth. However, this proved to be ineffective because the resourceful poachers soon tore it down.
The oilbird colonises the recesses of caverns like the Oropouche and remain there during the daytime. This is a nocturnal species that uses echo-location to navigate in the darkness of the cavern and only leaves this habitat at night to go out into the forest to forage for sustenance. It is because they do not leave their home during daylight hours that they are at a disadvantage when poachers attack. The birds can only fly around the confined space in the cavern, as they cannot see to escape into the daylight outside. Though they make deafening noises and rain faeces on intruders, this is not enough to save them from harm.
Because these caverns are in remote locations of the Northern Range, it is difficult for the authorities to enforce protection of this species. One colony at Dunstan Cave, a gorge where this species has thrived, has done so because of the advantage of protection from the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Other colonies like those in Cumaca and Aripo have not been so fortunate.
There are other colonies scattered throughout the range and along the coastline, but these have enjoyed safe and undisturbed lives because of the challenging terrain around them.
Now that the rains have returned, easy access to vulnerable caverns like the Oropouche is denied because of the threat of the Oropouche River. This river is known to emerge from the mouth of the cavern with violent force taking all along with it.
The oilbird colony that makes its home here can now survive and perpetuate its species for the next few months until the return of another dry time and the arrival of the relentless poachers, if adequate protective measures are not put in place by then.