Protecting Peru's Amazingly Diverse Amazon Region

Peru's rainforest is full of rare and exotic species — and environmentalists say that if it is shielded from development, it can act as a kind of Noah's ark, saving endangered flora and fauna. Conservation groups are coming up with innovative new ways to protect it.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A new highway is almost completed, a highway that will cross South America. It opens up access to hard-to-reach places, and with that access come threats. On the Interoceanic Highway, you can travel to pristine old-growth rainforest. Environmentalists are concerned that the road will endanger the rainforest and its unique plants and animals.

In the final story on our series on the highway, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro got a close-up look in the Peruvian Amazon and what environmentalists are trying to conserve.

(Soundbite of a bird)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what sound is that?

Ms. RAMIRO RAVAL(ph) (Environmentalist, Los Amigos Biological Station): This is long-crested pygmy tyrant, very difficult to see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ramiro Raval is one of the foremost birders in Peru. In a clearing in the forest, he plays a recording of the call of the long-crested pygmy tyrant, hoping it will attract one so he can get a glimpse. He goes on in Spanish.

Mr. RAVAL: (Through translator) In this area alone, there are 1,500 species of birds. On the planet, there are about 9,000 species of birds. So almost 15 percent of all the birds globally you can see here.

(Soundbite of birds)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Peru's Amazon Basin is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world, and Los Amigos Research Station - the scientific outpost that supports study of the Amazon - is perhaps one of the best places to see the amazing wealth of plants, insects and animals this region is home to.

We've come here after a grueling trip down the Interoceanic Highway, and the warm, wet foliage of the rainforest envelops us. As we're walking, we see a group of monkeys high up in the canopy. Enrique Ortiz is a biologist and one of the co-founders of the Amazon Conservation Association, which runs Los Amigos. He imitates the monkey's call.

Mr. ENRIQUE ORTIZ (Co-Founder, Amazon Conservation Association): Tocon-tocon-tocon-tocon-tocon-tocon-toncon-con.

So, locally, they're called Tocon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They're not very aggressive?

Mr. ORTIZ: No, they are actually very tame and quiet. But sometimes they can be vicious. They pee on you and they start showing their genitals. That's when they want you to go away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ORTIZ: They are funny.

(Soundbite of birds)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we continue through the forest, he tells us there are a remarkable 13 types of monkey here and 120 species of bats. Suddenly, though, the going gets tough.

So before I came out into the forest, I had to put on these big, huge, bright yellow rubber boots. And I can tell you, I needed them. Right now, we are tramping through almost knee-high mud and every step I take...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...my foot keeps on getting stuck in the mud. I have to wrench it out and keep on going. It's a bit of a slog.

Finally, we arrive at an ox-bow lake, home sometimes to the endangered giant otter. The otter family that hunts in these waters isn't here today. But researcher Shawn Denny says he's seen the rare creatures.

Mr. SHAWN DENNY (Researcher): I saw them once here and they were kind of either curious or upset, that was here. So when they do come out, they're pretty noisy and conspicuous. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do they look like?

Mr. DENNY: ...and they make a lot of noise. Well, they're interesting looking. They kind of have bulging eyes, which is kind of weird. They have this white mottled neck. And otherwise, they're sort of this chocolaty brown.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All this is located in one of the world's first-ever conservation concessions, Los Amigos.

Dr. ADRIAN FORSYTH (President, Amazon Conservation Association): Los Amigos is about 140,000 hectares. So it's bigger than most national parks in the world. As protected areas go, it's a good chunk of land.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adrian Forsyth is the president of the Amazon Conservation Association, which runs the Los Amigos Concession. Normally, governments grant oil concessions and mining concessions. A conservation concession functions in the same way. The stewards of the area are in a long-term contractual partnership with the national government. But the purpose, instead of the extraction of natural resources, is ecosystem and biodiversity conservation.

Forsyth helped found Los Amigos in 2001. Since then, other groups have adopted his model and conservation concessions have multiplied.

Dr. FORSYTH: To a biologist, this has to count as one of the most important places on the planet, because we have this tremendous concentration of biodiversity where the Andes runs up against the Amazon. And it's where, if you think in a few hundred years from now, we'll have been smart enough to stabilize population and consumption so that we can live in health on the planet.

We're still going to go through this tremendous bottleneck of loss of habitat and species before we reach that point. So where are the safe havens where we might carry through the largest number of species that will eventually need to rebuild the planet's health? And it's places like this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Forsyth sees this place as a conservationist's Noah's Ark.

Dr. FORSYTH: If you were a Martian looking down at planet Earth, you would remark on the fact that this is largely a lifeless ball of molten rock, floating in a lifeless vacuum in deep space, except for this thin little skin of life with an atmosphere around it. And that thin little skin has become patchy and frayed, and gray and brown, and there are few of these beautiful green, healthy, intact ecosystems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Areas that have to be preserved, he says. It remains to be seen what effect the Interoceanic Highway will have. But unless there is some sort of plan of how to mitigate the impact, Forsyth fears the worst.

Dr. FORSYTH: Well, I think the road can be a destructive force or it can be a positive force. I don't think there's any doubt that every country needs a certain amount of road networks. And I think the road doesn't have to be a disaster. It only has to be a disaster if it's simply treated as a way to have a free for all exploitation of the landscape, and simply allow people to come and do whatever they want to maximize their profit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Interoceanic Highway that goes through this part of Peru is a fait accompli; it's in its final stages. Forsyth and his group are continuing to try to protect what they can. With funding from American philanthropists, Forsyth and his team founded last year the area's first conservation concession managed by an indigenous group. The Haramba Queros Wachiperi Conservation Concession protects 17,000 acres of rainforest.

The philosophy here, though, is not only to protect the forest, but also to allow researchers to come and study what threatens it.

(Soundbite of conversation)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The dining room at Los Amigos serves as busy general meeting place for the many researchers who use the facilities, including Peggy Shrum.

Ms. PEGGY SHRUM (Graduate Student, Clemson University): I'm a Ph.D. student at Clemson University, here researching raptors for mercury toxicity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her research has shown that Amazonian birds of prey are showing high levels of mercury poisoning, because of the gold mining activity in the area. Mercury is used in the gold extraction process in this region. But she says its effects are being felt far and wide.

Ms. SHRUM: I found the highest levels in forest interior birds, which are nowhere near the river, nowhere near the mining, which really surprised me. And I also found levels in a clean area, an area six hours up river from here where there is no mining, a protected area. Those levels were equal to my levels here in the contaminated area, which was also surprising.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is work that will help scientists understand the affects of alluvial mining on the fauna here.

It's starting to get dark outside and everyone suddenly leaves the dining room, and walks to the edge of a cliff, which overlooks an endless expanse of unbroken forest. This daily ritual, those who stay here say, reminds them of nature's magnificence but also of its fragility.

(Soundbite of birds)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's about 5:15 in the evening and there is one event that no one at the research station misses, and that's the setting of they sun. They say every evening it's different, but every evening it's spectacular. And I can attest to that.

In front of me, the sun is slowly going down. The clouds are a vivid orange and red. Below that is the green canopy of the jungle and then the river slowly winding its way past.

This Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News in the Los Amigos Research Station, Peru.

SIEGEL: You can hear all of Lourdes' stories from along the Interoceanic Highway and see some incredible photos from her trip, as well as a map of the Interoceanic Highway. All of the at npr.org

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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