In 2000 I was lucky enough to visit French Guiana with a few entomological friends. The experience was fantastic and left me with many happy memories. You can read more about the trip here but this article is primarily about the country and why it is so good for entomologists.
French Guiana is quite an under-studied country but is actually a very attractive place for entomologists. The land area is dominated by unspoilt lowland tropical rainforest, which is easily accessed along rivers and good quality roads, while tourist accomodation is plentiful and very comfortable. A number of French entomologists have made French Guiana their home and you can see why when you see the relatively high standard of living in close proximity to the quality of forest that one might expect to find in much more inaccessible parts of the world.
In history French Guiana is probably best known for the penal colonies of St. Laurent and Devil’s Island – home to the famous Papilon of book and movie fame. Adventurers had attempted to find their fortune in plantations, forestry and gold prospecting but after the penal colony was closed in 1951 very little development was made there, until the European Space Agency chose Kourou to be their launching area for the Arianne rockets. The other main industries are still gold mining, timber extraction and fishing but the country remains highly dependent on French subsidies and imports, which has lead to a fairly high cost of living. French Guiana remains an overseas Departement of France with the Euro as its currency and is not an independent country. There is a growing independence movement, which has created some friction amongst some of the population.
The towns have quite a friendly, undeveloped feel about them, with a mixture of old French colonial architecture alongside quite make-do/ramshackle buildings with tin roofs – even in Cayenne, the capital city. Most towns are arranged along the coastal strip, in a belt of smallholdings and rather disorganised farming, leaving the vast hinterland as almost unspoilt pristine rainforest.
My visit to the country gave me a few contacts and when I got back to the UK I managed to obtain quite a few Malaise trap samples collected by Jean Cerda and other entomologists. Jean is a lepidopterist working on the Arctiidae of French Guiana, while his wife (Odette Morvan) is a coleopterists specialising in the Cerambycidae but they occasionally run Malaise traps in return for favours from other entomologists.
As you can see from the photographs, they live in a small cottage surrounded by the most wonderful rainforest. It keeps getting better though because the surrounding region is on a slight rise called the Montagne de Kaw. This is hardly a “mountain” in the true sense of the word but it is the highest piece of ground for miles around and so this tends to focus insect activity in a process called hill-topping. The best time for insect activity is the wet season (usually starting in November and continuing until July).
Collecting can be quite hard work though because the climate seems extremely hot unless you are used to it. I remember sweating uncontrollably when I first got there but after 2 weeks I started to feel more comfortable. It isn’t necessarily very hot (usually 32C in the day, 26C at night) but the country is criss-crossed by many rivers and creeks and the humidity is incredibly oppressive. I count it as probably the “hottest” place I have ever been to – for levels of discomfort, if not actual high temperatures.
With some careful planning it is possible to make contact with other entomologists and there are a handful of commercial insect collectors (mainly large insects or butterflies, as usual) who are happy to trade or just chat to fellow entomologists. For a small fee one can usually even borrow all the necessary equipment (generators, bulbs and even frames) to opperate Mercury Vapour lamps etc.
If you are tempted to visit French Guiana, Jean & Odette run a modest guest-house from their premises, aimed at entomologists who want a chance to live and collect in the forest. Guests have free rein to collect in all non National Park areas and opperate Malaise traps or Mercury Vapour lights as they wish. All enqueries should be addressed to Jean via his email.