Tourism, conservation pioneer Diane McTurk passes away

Known best for her free spirit and remarkable work with orphaned Giant River otters at the Karanambu Lodge, local tourism pioneer and animal lover Diane McTurk passed away yesterday at the St Joseph Mercy Hospital.

She was 85.  Though she did not go into detail, relative Melanie McTurk said the woman died peacefully in her sleep at the hospital early yesterday morning. She described her as a happy woman who was well-loved by all those who knew her.

In light of her passing, many persons took to social media to share memories and pay tribute the iconic Guyanese woman, well known as the ‘Otter Lady,’ while highlighting her work at the lodge and her vibrant spirit.

A partial biography shared by Melanie said McTurk was the second child of Rupununi pioneers Edward ‘Tiny’ McTurk and wife Constance, and their first to be born at Karanambu Ranch in the North Rupununi.

At age 5, she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother in Georgetown to attend school. Her education continued at a school in Barbados and was followed by schooling at Oxford.

The late Diane McTurk displaying the Caribbean Excellence in Sustainable Tourism Award that was bestowed to the Karanambu Lodge in 2013. (Karanambu Lodge photo)

After a brief dalliance with the theatre, she returned to the Rupununi in the 1950s and married Bob Milne, who was at that time a manager at Dadanawa Ranch, in the Rupununi.  Unprepared to sit home with the other wives, McTurk spent months with her husband and the Vaqueros on roundups. A subsequent move to Jamaica would spell the breakdown of the marriage and McTurk’s return to London alone.

A successful career in Public Relations would follow, but by 1966 after a life “flitting back and forth across the Atlantic,” she returned to be part of independence and worked on the Hospitality Committee in the Independence Celebrations Office. Following independence, she accepted a position as the Press and Public Relations Officer with the Guyana Sugar Producers Association.  In 1969, in the aftermath of the Rupununi Uprising, McTurk become recognised for her vocal advocacy on behalf of eight Amerindians who had been arrested following the escape of the insurrection’s leaders to Brazil and Venezuela.

In newspapers of the day, she brought the injustice to the eye of the public and raised funds for their defence, eventually winning their release.

By the 1970s, McTurk acted as the Public Relations Officer for the Booker Group of Companies in Guyana. She served as the Executive Secretary to the Consultative Association of Guyanese Industry, and on the board of Meat Marketing Limited.

In 1974, she briefly returned to London to work in public relations, but by 1977 she was back in the Rupununi for planned editing of her father’s papers and chronicling the savannah’s pioneer period.

Instead, McTurk re-joined the boards of Meat Marketing Limited and the Rupununi Development Company Limited. She undertook the organisation of the Rupununi Livestock Producers Association and served as Company Secretary for many years.

By 1979, she had also undertaken the management of the McTurk family ranch and balata contracting business at Karanambu. One year later, Karanambu’s dwindling income forced diversification and saw McTurk turning Karanambu’s already well-established reputation for hospitality and wildlife to economic value, by opening the family home to tourists in 1983.

With friends Duane and Sandy deFreitas of Dadanawa, and Louie Orella, of Manari ranch, McTurk endeavoured to promote the “Ranches of the Rupununi,” which highlighted many of the wonders of the world she loved.

Additionally, she served as Chair of the Regional Democratic Council until 1987, when she resigned to have more time to dedicate to her growing interest in conservation and Giant Otters.

Brought to her as a Christmas gift, the otter Frankincense or ‘Frankie,’ as he was fondly known, transformed McTurk’s life and prompted the development of the Otter Rehabilitation and Reintroduction programme at Karanambu.

A documentary by Survival Anglia introduced McTurk and her beloved beasts to the world, drawing tourists and conservationists.

By 1997, with the support of the McTurk Family, the Karanambu Trust was established to protect the area’s flora and fauna and promote economic opportunities for the nearby communities.

In the years that followed, the animal lover was renowned as an expert on Giant Otters, caring for over 50 animals and successfully seeing the repopulation of the species throughout the Rupununi River system.

Through the years, McTurk was bestowed countless awards, including a national Medal of Service and the Caribbean Excellence in Sustainable Tourism Award. She was also featured on the BBC, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and German and Japanese television. She was seen as a pioneer of Guyana’s nature and community-based tourism and an inspiration to a generation across the globe in the area of conservation.

Arrangements were being made yesterday to have McTurk’s body returned to her home at Karanambu, where she will be laid to rest beside her mother next Saturday. A formal memorial to celebrate her life will be planned for the New Year at a date to be announced later.


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