Tourism expert Myra Shackley is heading for a forgotten part of the Guyanan jungle in a bid to save some of the world's last remaining giant otters from the threat of illegal hunting and extinction.
Just 1,000 giant otters survive today and Professor Shackley of Nottingham Trent University is exploring new ways of opening up an ecotourism industry to help fund an ambitious conservation project.
The plan is centred on the Karanambo Ranch in the remote Rupununi region. Its owner, Diane McTurk, has become well known in conservation circles for acting as a surrogate mother to dozens of orphaned otter cubs.
Professor Shackley said: "They are adorable creatures - bold, inquisitive and very vocal." She believes the otters will be a huge visitor attraction to the reserve. But the fear is that they are in danger of being lost forever because of illegal fur trapping. A giant otter pelt can be worth the equivalent of two weeks' wages to a local worker on the black market, since the creatures grow to more than eight feet.
Professor Shackley hopes to help establish a wilderness reserve to protect not only the otter but also jaguars, the black cayman, ant eaters, humming birds and monkeys. The reserve will depend heavily on money generated by tourism. The feasibility study will be the first big research project to be undertaken by Nottingham Trent's new Centre for Tourism and Visitor Management Studies.
Guyana receives only about 1,500 visitors a year. The country is hampered by poor transport and communications and the traditional ranches are often in dire financial straits because of the collapse of the rubber-tapping industry.
Professor Shackley said: "There is almost unlimited potential for ecotourism in Guyana and with the right approach it could eventually be possible to be on the same level as market leaders like Costa Rica."
Professor Shackley hopes her final report will help persuade the Government and conservation agencies worldwide to grant aid to preserve the wilderness.