Francesco Sauro has led five expeditions to South America’s table-top mountains since 2009, along with Italian exploration association La Venta, and with the support of the Venezuelan team Theraphosa. They made several discoveries, including one of the world’s longest quartzite caves, in Venezuela’s Auyan tepui. With support from Rolex and other sponsors, he is now planning more expeditions to study the “lost world” that exists in the caves, formed over millions of years.
On one tepui expedition, Sauro and his team discovered a new mineral, rossiantonite, as well as other rare silica and sulphate formations. Additional finds include new cave animal species, such as a blind fish trapped in an underground river, which could reveal a close relationship to some African species – further evidence of the period when Africa and South America formed a super-continent.
Between November 2014 and November 2017, Sauro intends to lead a series of four expeditions into caves in the farthest tepuis of the Amazonas region: Duida-Marahuaka massif in southern Venezuela, and Pico da Neblina and Serra do Aracá in neighbouring Brazil. “Conditions will be challenging due to the remoteness of the locations and altitudes of up to 2,900 metres, but I think the rewards will be considerable,” Sauro says.
“Because of the heavy rainfall in the region, there is likely to be extensive water erosion, which of course translates into even bigger caves.” He also believes that the new locations – further inland and far from previous research sites – will present very different ecosystems with variant geo-microbiological environments and unknown fauna. “The idea is to collect data with a multidisciplinary and holistic approach to build up a picture of the whole area, offering insights into the evolution of landscape and life in central South America after the opening of the Atlantic Ocean 100 million years ago,” he says.
The Award will fund a preliminary reconnaissance mission involving a three-to-five-man team that will survey the sites by helicopter. This will allow them to locate cave entrances and assess the caves’ speleological and scientific potential, as well as study logistical difficulties. It will also fund a second, multidisciplinary team of nine to 15 scientists and cavers from Italy, Venezuela, Brazil and Switzerland who will then undertake a survey of the caves, collecting geological and geo-microbiological data, analysing the caves’ morphology, water chemistry and rock weathering, as well as looking for new or rare minerals and life forms.
Mindful of the spiritual significance and ecological importance of the tepuis for the indigenous people, Sauro has always shared the knowledge derived from his expeditions with local communities, and has ensured that research is undertaken with the utmost respect for the environment both inside and outside the cave formations. The expeditions will also include local Venezuelan and Brazilian cavers, in order to share research and discoveries with local institutions and caving groups.