Photograph by Kevin Schafer, National Geographic
Site: Central Amazon Conservation Complex
Year Designated: 2003
Reason: These tropical forests in the heart of the Amazon basin are some of the most biodiverse areas on Earth and home to many species found nowhere else.
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The verdant green forests of the Amazon Basin cover an area larger than Texas. And the largest protected area within this vast and vital ecosystem is the Central Amazon Conservation Complex—a sprawling 23,000-square-mile (6-million-hectare) site that is itself bigger than Switzerland.
The Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on the entire planet. It's particularly rich in freshwater species—including more than 3,000 different fish species and the world’s largest variety of electric fish. The region is also home to unique and threatened South American species, including the giant arapaima fish, the Amazonian manatee, the black caiman, and two species of river dolphin.
Within the enormous Central Amazon Conservation Complex several distinct, smaller entities house their own unique environments. Mamirauá Reserve’s várzea ecosystem is a landscape of seasonally flooded forests, floodplains, and swamps where the “white water” is actually yellowish in color due to suspended sediments.
Each year the Amazon—which is so large its system contains 20 percent of Earth’s freshwater—and its tributaries rise as much as 30 feet (9 meters) to replenish floodplain soils and nutrients and recharge lakes and ponds. Fish, reptiles, and other aquatic species take advantage of this cyclical occurrence to move into newly flooded areas and exploit their resources until the waters subside. (Some fish, for example, are known to eat fruit from forest trees.)
Jaú National Park’s igapó (blackwater) drainage is a flooded ecosystem of low, thin trees named for the dark color its water acquires from decomposing organic matter.
While the Amazon is famed for these flooded forests, lakes, and channels, the region is also home to dry tropical forests.
But some of those trees are targeted by logging operations, which, along with mining and the conversion of clear lands to ranching or agriculture, constitute serious threats to the long-term future of the Amazon Basin. Although rules are in place to protect the Central Amazon Conservation Complex and other areas from inappropriate uses, they can be extremely difficult to enforce.
How to Get There
Rivers, not roads, are the transportation hubs in this region, and most of the few visitors to the Central Amazon Conservation Complex arrive by boat, employing everything from canoes to speedboats. Manaus and Tefé are two popular gateway communities for such adventures.
When to Visit
The Amazon is hot and humid all year, so the main seasonal consideration is rainfall. Rain (and river levels) reach their low ebb in November, then begin to build toward annual maximums in June and July.
How to Visit
A visit to this area offers a chance to explore a vast wilderness largely untrammeled by tourist infrastructure. Most tourist access is regulated by the government, however, and independent travel can be a challenge. Visitors typically book boat tours and many stay in local ecolodge camps.
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