Thursday, 17 May 2018

Diane McTurk (1932-2016): The ‘Otter Lady’ of Guyana

Diane McTurk with two of her
otters. From Wilderness Explorers,
the ground agents for many
wildlife tours in Guyana
The death in Guyana of Diane McTurk in December 2016 went unreported in Britain. Lack of coverage was surprising in view of her family’s appearance in two works by national treasures: Gerald Durrell’s Three Singles to Adventure published in 1954 and David Attenborough’s BBC Zoo Quest to Guiana in 1955 with the book published in 1956. By contrast, in Guyana and the Caribbean her death was reported widely.

In her later years Diane (pronounced Dee-Ann) became well known for establishing in 1983 a tourism business at the family’s Karanambu ranch in the Rupununi grasslands of Guyana and for rearing rescued orphaned Giant Otters (Pteronura brasiliensis). Not only did she learn how to rear them but successfully reintroduced many of them to the wild. When we were at Karanambu in 2006 Diane told us that the otters had been—and to a some extent still were being—hunted, the orphaned young being left to die. She reared over forty with, fortunately, the supply eventually drying up. The hand-reared otters became incredibly tame, following Diane or her helpers down to the river for a swim, a play with the children watching their mothers washing clothes and to fish. The otters got through enormous quantities of fish caught each day at the river. While the otters were at the river a sharp eye was kept for the pack of wild otters. They are fiercely territorial and would have killed the hand-reared interlopers. A call from Diane soon had them back to heel and they were lead back to the lodge where they had a cosy box to sleep in.

Diane McTurk had an interesting life flitting between a life in Guyana and England. Schooled as an actress but realising she did not have the talent required, she worked in public relations for the Savoy Hotel. And that explained why staying at Karanambu was such an easy experience. The brick building and thatched roof may have been basic but there was everything there that a guest might need—it was a Savoy experience combined with country house weekend dining—hundred of miles from the nearest city. A variety of public relations and business development jobs in Guyana and London followed, as for a time she flitted between the two countries. She was though firmly Guyanan having been treated, she said, by her London contemporaries as just a ‘colonial’.

Politically active—and judging by the photographs and literature in our quarters—a strong supporter of Cheddi Jagan (1918-1997) who fell foul of one of the periodic madnesses of British and US foreign policy in the 1960s, Diane also, it is reported, raised support for the defence of those accused after the Rupununi Uprising of 1969 and who were eventually acquitted.

But what links talking to Diane in the searing heat of the gravel-covered yard at Karanambu (kept clear of plants to reduce the number of biting insects near the buildings) and a former mining village twenty miles inland from where I am writing this? The first McTurk in what was then British Guiana was Michael. Sir Michael McTurk was born in New Cumnock, Ayrshire in 1785. He graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1810 to become principal medical officer in British Guiana for 34 years. He was responsible for ensuring that Georgetown, the capital and centre of the sugar industry, had a water supply both for the human population and to irrigate the sugar fields. McTurk was concerned with the plight of the slaves in the country; he was knighted 1839 for his efforts on their behalf. After the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833, he brought in a local measure ensuring the full emancipation of the slaves. He died in 1844.

The next generation of McTurks was in Liverpool with Sir Michael’s son having married into a family of shipowners. On hearing the stories of his grandfather, the grandson, another Michael, took off in one of the family ships to Georgetown. That Michael, Diane’s grandfather, became Protector of the [Amer]Indians for the whole Essequibo region and her father Edward ‘Tiny’ McTurk—known for his association with Durrell and with Attenborough—was born at Bartica. After service in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, ‘Tiny’ McTurk decided he needed a proper job so joined the balata industry.

I had previously only associated balata with the covering of expensive golf balls for professionals (back-spin is easier to achieve but at the expense of distance) that were used until very recently. But I now find that In the 1920s balata was booming, being used to cover the underwater cables linking countries and continents, and it came from a tree common in Guyana and the West Indies, Manilkara bidentata. The latex-like material was tapped, like rubber, by cutting gashes in the bark and then left to coagulate in trays. Balata is tough, inelastic and water resistant but can be softened by heating.

So balata was big business and McTurk was given the job of finding somewhere suitable as a collection station. Karanambu did not flood in the wet season and McTurk established the balata station and cattle ranching there in 1927. Diane returned to Karanambu in 1977 and saw that diversification into tourism at a time of dwindling income from traditional activities was essential.

One of our fellow guests remarked as we left Karanambu in its ancient Land Rover in a remark that could have applied to Diane as to the vehicle: ‘They don’t build ‘em like that any more’.

Here is a very short extract from a video I took of Diane with one of her otters in March 2006:

You can see more on the unupdated website of the Karanambu Trust, set up by the McTurk family in 1997, with more information here, here, here and here.