Photo: Silhouette of egret against sunset

Egrets are part of the unique mix of wildlife that lives among the saw grass and mangroves of South Florida's Everglades National Park.

Photograph courtesy National Park Service

Location: Florida

Established: December 6, 1947

Size: 1,542,526 acres

A short parade of visitors follows a ranger on an Everglades nature walk. For more than an hour she has shown them the living wonders around them—butterflies and snails, alligators and fish, and bird after bird. Near the end of the walk, she gathers the visitors around her. She points to a string of nine white ibis coursing a cloudless sky.

"Imagine seeing ibis in the 1930s," she says. "That would have been a flight of about 90 birds. We are seeing only about 10 percent of the wading birds that were here then. When you get home, write your congressmen and tell them we have to save Everglades." Though park staff may not lobby Congress, in this threatened national park, lobbying happens on nature walks and appears in official literature.

The park is at the southern tip of the Everglades, a hundred-mile-long subtropical wilderness of saw-grass prairie, junglelike hammock, and mangrove swamp that originally ran from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. Water, essential to the survival of this ecosystem, once flowed south from the lake unhindered. But as the buildup of southern Florida has intensified, canals, levees, and dikes have increasingly diverted the water to land developments and agribusinesses. Vast irrigated farmlands have spread to the park's gates. The waning of the ibis carries a warning: Watery habitats in the park are shrinking because not enough water is getting to Everglades.

The park's special mission inspires the crusade to save it. Unlike early parks established to protect scenery, Everglades was created to preserve a portion of this vast ecosystem as a wildlife habitat. The park's unique mix of tropical and temperate plants and animals—including more than 700 plant and 300 bird species, as well as the endangered manatee, crocodile, and Florida panther—has prompted UNESCO to grant it international biosphere reserve status as well as World Heritage site designation.

Everglades environmentalists and crusaders urge the purchase of privately owned wetlands east and north of the park. This would further protect the ecosystem and give the park a larger claim to the water that Everglades shares with its thirsty neighbors.

The diverse life of Everglades National Park, from algae to alligators, depends upon a rhythm of abundance and drought. In the wet season, a river inches deep and miles wide flows, almost invisibly, to the Gulf of Mexico. In the dry season, the park rests, awaiting the water's return. The plants and animals are a part of this rhythm. When humans change it, they put Everglades life at risk.

Did You Know?

Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist.

During the Seminole Wars, the Everglades served as refuge for the Seminole and Miccosukee peoples, who found safety in the land's vast prairies and mangrove swamps.

Everglades National Park was the first national park established to preserve biological diversity and resources, not for scenic views.

Copy for this series includes excerpts from the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012, and the National Parks articles featured in "Cutting Loose" in National Geographic Traveler.

National Parks Photos

  • Photo: Aerial view of Everglades inlets

    Everglades Photos

    Egrets, saw grass, and mangroves are counted as part of the unique mix of wildlife that lives in the Everglades National Park. The park covers just one-fifth of the 'Glades, dubbed the River of Grass.

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