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When the rainy season floods the Amazon River Basin, rivers and tributaries can rise up to 40 feet leaving some trees and vegetation submerged up to six months. Groups of pink dolphins (Inia geoffrensis) navigate the flooded forests using echolocation and their flexible bodies to search for fish. This spectacular hunting ritual is now threatened as these rose-colored mammals face extinction in some tributaries.

The freshwater highways traveled by Amazon River dolphins are part of the world’s largest river system, which pours some 46 million gallons of water per second into the Atlantic Ocean. Flowing from west to east, the Amazon River is the lifeline of the largest tropical rain forest on Earth.

Amazonia spans nine countries: Brazil, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. Within this region lies the most abundant wilderness on the planet, supporting more than 40,000 plant species with almost 30,000 endemic varieties found nowhere else on Earth.

With an average of one person per square kilometer, low population density has slowed the exploitation of Amazonia although logging and plantation agriculture have increased. More than 80 percent of the Amazon forest remains intact, offering an opportunity to protect a little more than half of the world’s remaining tropical forest.

Rain Forest Biodiversity
Within its 2.5 million square miles, the Amazon River Basin is a breathtaking paradise where untold species of flora and fauna remain undiscovered. It houses the largest concentration of primate diversity in the world. At least six new species were discovered in the last 10 years. Invertebrates like the dinner-plate-sized goliath spider of Venezuela (Theraphosa leblondi), are also incredibly diverse in the region. Many of these animals, however, remain undescribed by scientists, especially insects and fishes.

In some areas more than 450 tree species exist in a single hectare with each tree constituting a world of its own. In a single Amazonian tree, scientists have found 95 varieties of ants, ten fewer than have been found in all of Germany.

Towering trees and twisting vines make up the dense and largely unstudied tree canopy where most of the biodiversity is found. Clans of cobalt blue macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) share the treetops with carnivorous harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja) that hunt monkeys and opossums. Lethal poison dart frogs (Dendrobates pumilio) sport lavish colors to ward off predators. Ripe with fruits and flowers, branches support splendid varieties of mosses and orchids. Bromeliad leaf cups cradle fresh drinking water and tadpole breeding pools.

Global Impact
As exotic as some of the endangered rain forest species may seem, their impact on humanity is familiar. Along with producing tangible products like nuts, cocoa, coffee and bananas, the Amazon forest also absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and contributes to climate stabilization.

In addition to sustaining life, many plants help prolong it. One fourth of the medicines in pharmacies worldwide, from cancer drugs to medicinal steroids, come from the rain forest. Plant sources for the treatment of AIDS, diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s are being evaluated.

Forest Threats
Today more than 20 percent of the Amazon forest has been permanently destroyed. Land is cleared for cattle ranching, mining, and subsistence agriculture. But the biggest threat is logging, especially for valuable timber like mahogany. Typically, loggers cut profitable species then burn the land for farms or pasture. More than 6,560 square miles of forest are lost each year.

Conservation Status
National parks, wildlife sanctuaries, indigenous lands, and nature reserves are the key to conserving Amazonia. To date, only about eight percent of Amazon ecosystems are under strong protection.

Conservation organizations and scientists from around the world collaborate to analyze the region’s biological status, set conservation priorities, and establish protected areas. The most notable of these was Brazil’s recent creation of the largest tropical forest park in the world, the 9.5 million acre (3.8 million hectare) Tumucumaque. Preserving remaining forests provide some hope for safeguarding the Amazon River Basin’s breathtaking and valuable biodiversity for the future.

Resources and Links
CI Wide
Conservation Regions: Brazil
Conservation Regions: Guianas
GCF: NeoTropics Projects
Frontlines: Kanuku, Mountains of Life
Frontlines: Putting butterflies to work in the Amazon
Frontlines: Debt swap heralds protection for Colombia's biological riches
Frontlines: Aggressive development in Brazilian Amazon galvanizes forces for sustainable alternatives
Frontlines: Earth's largest tropical forest park created in Amazonia mountains
Frontlines: Mountains of Tumucumaque National Park: Setting a New Conservation Standard
Frontlines: New primates found in the Amazon
Frontlines: Indigenous reserves a force for conservation
Frontlines: Kayapó Indigenous Territories: Preserving Ancestral Lands


© Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures
The Amazon River dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) is known as "bufeo colorado" in Peru and "boto" in Brazil.

© Pete Oxford/Minden Pictures
San Rafael Falls on the Quijos River in Ecuador.

© Claus Meyer/Minden Pictures
Goliath spiders (Theraposidae spp.), though creepy, are harmless to humans.

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Photo credits for banner images: (Greater Flamingos © Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures); (Diagonal-banded Sweetlips © Fred Bavendam/Minden Pictures);
(Madagascar Aloe © Frans Lanting/Minden Pictures); (Hippo © Frans Lanting/Minden Pictures); (Hummingbird © Pete Oxford); (Malagasy Frog © Piotr Naskrecki/CI)