Family of Capybara at the shores of the Amazon rainforest in Manu National Park, Peru
With half of the planet’s tropical forests, more than 4,000 miles of winding rivers, and 1.4 billion acres of forest, the Amazon jungle is one of the most magical places on Earth. The existence of the rainforest, a crucial factor in preventing climate change, is currently under threat due to deforestation and the subsequent release of large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
One in 10 species in the world lives in the Amazon, which makes it the largest collection of plants and animals in the world. There are some 40,000 plant species, 2,000 species of birds and mammals, 16,000 tree species (and an astounding 390 billion individual trees), 3,000 freshwater fish species, 370 reptile species and 2.5 million insect species. Notably, one in five fish species live in the Amazon’s bodies of water.
The Amazon is home to many wondrous and unusual animals, including the macaw, the sloth, the spider monkey, the Emperor tamarin, the Amazon river dolphin, the blue poison dart frog and many more. Travelers should only enter the Amazon with an experienced guide, as they could encounter a jaguar, cougar or an anaconda, as well as electric eels, piranha fish and poison dart frogs.
The indigenous population of the Amazon has decreased drastically over time. Once thought to be a flourishing society of around 5 million, the population fell to one million by 1900 due to smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans. By the 1980s, it dwindled down to less than 200,000. Diseases such as typhus and malaria brought by foreign migrants during the Amazon rubber boom contributed to the problem, killing 40,000 Amazonians. Still, 350 indigenous tribes live in and around the jungle and depend on it for agriculture, food and traditional medicine.
Deforestation of the Amazon due to land development and land use is a threat to many species – including humans. By 2018, 17% of the rainforest had been destroyed. If the deforestation continues at the same rate, it will soon reach the tipping point when the ecosystem will change from the rainforest to a savannah – causing extinction of many species and accelerating climate change.
Emperor Tamarin Monkey
On a global scale, deforestation releases carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming, which, in turn, can ruin crops and cause food shortages worldwide. In the Amazon, the loss of biodiversity will ensue. It affects people, too: the Urarina in Peru, for example, is one such indigenous community the existence of which is threatened by ecocide – criminal behavior that results in the destruction of the ecosystem.
The multitude of factors that have contributed to the destruction of the Amazon include the construction of the trans-Amazonian highway and many other roads, the farming practices and the conversion of forest to pasture, illegal logging and mining, oil drilling activities and overharvesting of fish, droughts caused by warmer temperatures and fires that result from the slash-and-burn methods of clearing the forest. All of these have one thing in common: they are caused by humans.
What can we do? Already, about 250 million acres have been put into some sort of a conservation by different governments. An Ecuadorian court halted oil exploration activity and forbade the sale of forest to oil companies. Brazil has formed a biodiversity conservation fund.
Government agencies and NGOs work with global corporations and local communities and corporations to develop a sustainable forest economy, which means protecting the Amazon, working more efficiently and harvesting responsibly – and replanting the forest whenever possible. And every bit of effort counts – even a single person can make the world of difference by planting trees, removing non-native weeds, maintaining trails and observing and monitoring wildlife.
Although most of the rainforest is located in Brazil, the Amazon spans across eight other countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana.
The name of the rainforest hails from Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana. Stunned by the unusual sight of indigenous women fighting alongside men, he called the former Amazons, after a tribe of warrior women in Greek mythology.
The Amazon has more than 2 million square miles of dense forests and contains 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon.
The rainforest likely formed around 55 million years ago. (For reference, dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago.) The earliest human inhabitants settled in the region 11,200 years ago.
Remote sensing technology – the study of biomass and carbon emissions through satellite data – is currently helping the conservation efforts by accurately assessing the extent of deforestation.