In the late eighteenth century the chiefs of the Aluku and Boni tribes at the head of a small group of Maroon slaves left the region of the Cottica River east of Paramaribo to take refuge on the Maroni.

Around 1791 they founded their first villages upstream of this series of saults* that later came to be called Abattis Cottica. Shortly afterwards they were pushed back upstream by the Dutch allies of the N’Djuka, and only came back to settle definitively here in what became Aluku country 40 years later. Nowadays the Abattis Cottica (abattis literally means clearings in French) are a natural frontier between the Aluku and Djuka countries and tell of past conflicts. They are still marked by the strong cultural value ascribed to them by the descendants of the Boni and Aluku chiefs. But they are also an extraordinary combination of natural landscapes and home to truly remarkable biodiversity.

The Abattis Cottica lie on the Lawa stretch of the Maroni River. They are an emblematic site in Aluku country where the Mount Cottica dominates the river on one of its most majestic stretches. The river fragments here into countless arms and forested islands, interrupted by spectacular saults. On the right bank Mount Cottica (Lebi Dotsi in Aluku) rises to a little over 730 metres, making it one of the highest places in French Guiana.

The proximity of the river to the foot of the mountain creates a combination of outstanding landscapes. It is home to a diverse range of natural habitats for flora and fauna that this article explores.

Bounded by the Maroni river and its tributary the Petit Abounamy, and lying one day upstream by pirogue from Grand Santi, the Abattis Cottica stand at the gateway to Aluku country and its villages immediately upstream. From Lessé dédé soula sault there are about fifteen kilometres of meanders making up the Abattis Cottica, beyond which lie the first villages of L’Enfant perdu on Gaan Tabiki (the big Island) and Cotticadorp on the Suriname side. In June, when the water level is at its highest, the river covers all these outcrops and it only takes about an hour to complete the journey. But from October onwards this gives way to a completely mineral landscape and only those who live here are able to find their way through the maze, and it requires considerable dexterity to get up the most difficult saults.

Along the river

Upstream the river flows in a very straight course, and from a pirogue you only get a limited view of the immediate environment. At the islet of Assissi the mountain looms majestically above the old Aluku village. From there on you can see a wide range of panoramas forming to a scenic composition of all the various landscapes.

Once you get beyond Gaan Tabiki the Lawa widens into a series of saults which only emerge late in the dry season, exposing an endless series of rocks in the vast expanse of water. From Gaan Chton soula (Big Rock sault) the nearby mountain starts to recede as the pirogue enters one of the many meanders of the river. As you pass through the abundant riverside forest a series of more intimate landscapes emerge, interrupted here and there by rocky saults.

Further downstream the landscape opens out once again at the Saut Léssé Dédé, an emblematic and tumultuous sault* standing two metres fifty high and marking the end of the Abattis Cottica labyrinth.

The following description of this river setting was penned by Robert Vignon, the first Prefect of French Guiana, on one of his trips along the river:

“(…) we are entering an amazing landscape, the abattis Cottica. The river there widens out considerably. It flows rapidly and tumultuously amongst a labyrinth of islands with vegetation hanging out far above the water. For kilometres there is a dazzling and constantly renewed variety of views, forming a boundless symphony of green lit up by the thick hanging creepers with their multicoloured flowers. On the slopes of Mount Cottica, which can be clearly made out to our right, there are enormous bunches of flaming yellow flowers, the blooms of the yellow poui trees”.

Through the forest

The most noticeable particularity of the Abattis Cottica is no doubt this composition of seemingly monotonous forest and river. However they combine to make up a mosaic of landscapes composed of highly picturesque undergrowth as well as being of major ecological significance.

The very abrupt transition between the river and the summit means that you find the full range of natural habitats here going from riverside to mountaintop forest. The western flank of the mountain has a series of creeks – Gaan Daay, Ma Adouyba, and Lykanaon. Due to the steep slopes they form torrents that flow down often deep-cut valleys with waterfalls in places. A low altitude forest is found on the gentler slopes up to 300 metres in altitude. This is where you find the emergent trees that stand about sixty metres tall, towering above the surrounding canopy. In places there are gaps formed by dense grass formations only a few tall metres. Finally, as you near the summit, the trees get lower and lower as erosion has washed away the soil revealing the laterite crust.

The mountaintop plateau stands out in sharp contrast to all the other environments. The trees here are relatively modest in size, only twenty or so metres tall. Due to the high level of humility and low temperatures associated with the altitude there are persistent mists here, hence such places are sometimes referred to as sub mountain cloud forests. The undergrowth here forms a screen of particularly dense creepers covered in moss. The gentle light filtering through the mist helps create a gently subdued atmosphere. A few individual wells of light break through here and there across the plateau. There are also two large ponds to the South and several areas carpeted by moss and bromeliads beneath the very low canopy at the centre.

The slope has the particularity of lying beneath another ridge about 500 metres off. It is a truly amazing place.

Fauna and flora on Mount Cottica

Until recently the sector was unknown to scientific exploration. It was only in 2005 that a small group of naturalists were able to carry out a modest prospection of the plateau and its surrounding slopes. Their observations reveal truly remarkable and original biodiversity.

The diversity in the animal world is found especially in the amphibian and fish populations.

Observation of the amphibian populations revealed several ecological originalities. Many individuals were counted, with the most interesting being found on the plateau and especially near the ponds there. Two rare species were identified, including the minute Chiasmocleis sp. that was detected thanks to its call.

Several species restricted to uplands in French Guiana has been found here, confirming the area in which they are to be found. The Dendrobate tinctorius, a poisonous natural wonder that is well known to the general public and found in many high-lying areas of French Guiana was not found at the site, whilst the entirely yellow and black Atelopus spumarius was present in large numbers.

The whitewater torrents streaming down the mountain slopes are home to a discrete population of fish who live in their crystal-clear water that is wholly untouched by any form of pollution. Only 4 to 6 species were found in each creek, a relatively low number. But most of them are rare and very certainly new to science, including probably the little Hartiella sp. (see photo opposite) which could not be precisely identified on the spot.

The level of endemism is particularly high within each drainage basin watershed*, both those facing the Maroni and the Petit Abounamy rivers. It seems likely that this is also true for each of the creeks which, though close to each other, are found at the bottom of steep valleys. This endemism might be attributable to a process of speciation. Individuals from the same species confined within isolated little creeks at altitude might have developed specific characteristics over time, eventually becoming different species.

With regard to birds Mount Cottica is apparently one of the few sites to be permanently home to all the Contingidae family, which includes the cock-of-the-rock and the bellbird, whose powerful call echoes out across the plateau.

The brown violetear, Colibri delphinae, was well-known in the sub mountain forests in the Western Amazonian massif and Venezuela. It was also spotted near the pond, which was a first for the east of the Guiana Shield region. Its presence there confirms the ecological originality of this peak in western French Guiana.

Turning our attention purely to undergrowth plants, nearly 300 taxa have been identified from 59 families, including about twenty species worthy of note as relatively rare or else little described, and perhaps one new species of passion flower, as well as a new anthurium (Araceace) and a melastomataceae. Botany is one of the most suitable disciplines to illustrate the biodiversity of an Amazonian site. As a point of comparison, in mainland France with its four major biogeographical zones (the Atlantic, Continental, Mediterranean, and alpine zones) there are only 4900 species, whilst in French Guiana there are over 5400 even though it is seven times smaller in terms of its surface area.

This botanical inventory has brought how vegetation is found in layers due primarily to the altitude and soil types. The presence of persistent clouds at the summit causes a drop in temperature and creates a more humid atmosphere. The soils are also much poorer. The plateau is formed of a laterite crust which on occasions breaks through to the surface, whereas on the lower slopes the soil is far deeper and richer. The proportion of remarkable species is thus higher the closer you get to the summit.

There is also an outstanding range of ferns, with over a third of inventoried species found here in the more humid environments, alongside the watercourses and torrents and at the summit. Another originality of the site is that the Astrocaryum palm found so frequently in the undergrowth in French Guiana would appear to be wholly absent from this forest, or at least from the zones prospected.

These initial observations show that the wealth of flora and fauna at the Abattis and Mount Cottica is a characteristic of a few large areas of sub mountain cloud forest fund at altitudes of between 600 and 800 metres. But it also has its own specific originality: it is a complex of unique landscapes with a great diversity of ecological habitats and original distribution patterns for some species that do not tie in with the logic observed elsewhere.

This gives scientists further work to better understand this little slice of biodiversity.

The Abattis Cottica classified on the list of natural sites and monuments

The list of natural sites and monuments was established by French laws of 1906 and 1930 and is the oldest measure to protect French heritage. Its aim is to protect elements of the landscape, ranging from individual elements to entire sets, which are of major interest due to their artistic, historic, legendary, picturesque, or scientific nature.

The first stage in the recognition of a site’s interest is placing it on the list. This comparatively flexible measure brings little constraints with it, and it can be reinforced by the classifying the site, if it is of major national or international interest and if conservation issues justify setting up stronger protection measures.

In the course of one century over 2600 sites have been classified and nearly 4800 placed on the list, representing 4% of the national territory. Classified sites include the Mont Blanc range, the Mont Saint Michel, the Marie Galante cliffs in Guadeloupe, and Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The Camargue is the largest site covering over 100,000 hectares.

The list of natural sites and monuments was only expanded to French Guiana in the 1980s. So far it includes only fourteen sites found mainly along the coast, including the Salut isles, the Cayenne Mounts, and the old centres of Cayenne and Saint Laurent du Maroni. The latest site, the Abattis Cottica, was added in 2005. This brought initial recognition as a site of outstanding heritage. Since then it has been suggested that the Abattis and Mount Cottica be classified. The aim will be to obtain national recognition of the value of this large and exceptional site that stands as testimony to the Maroons, where the value of the extraordinary landscape is closely bound up with its strong cultural and historic identity for the Aluku community.