Brazil

Amazon rain forest soil isn’t rich but nature has adapted so fungi and insects speed decomposition for immediate use by living plants and animals. So well and quickly do forest plants absorb nutrients that 98 percent of all phosphate dissolved in rain is used before it reaches the forest floor.

The Amazon River basin, world’s largest rain forest, interlaced and drained by the world’s greatest river, occupies more than a third of the country. Southeast lie Brazilian highlands covered with dry rolling grasslands known as “campo,” and scrubby “cerrado” woodlands; just southwest of the central plateau is the world’s largest seasonally flooded freshwater wetland, the Pantanal. Here live some of the continent’s greatest wildlife concentrations—world’s biggest jaguars, rare maned wolves, crab-eating foxes, and huge colonies of wading birds.

On the southwest border with Argentina lies IGUAÇU, surrounded by subtropical forest harboring ocelots and tapirs. Here one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls thunders down on thousands of tiny intrepid nest-building swifts. To the far south, in Rio Grande do Sul, are vast pampas grasslands, and along southeast coasts the narrow isolated Serro do Mar mountain range, its highest peak rising to 9,508 feet (2,898 m). Slopes once covered by cloud and subtropicalAtlantic rain forest are now mostly cut, and its birds, including 160 that are endemic there, survive only in a few reserves protecting the remnants.

Despite environmental threats from logging, mining, pollution, hydroelectric projects, illegal human settlement, and poaching for everything from skins of rare spotted cats to endangered turtles and rare ornamental fish, several outstanding reserves are here.

Of consummate importance is recent link-up of three huge reserves: the new Amaña Sustainable Development Reserve (SDR), 9,180 square miles (23,780 km2)—an area the size of Belgium in the central Amazon Basin between the Negro and Japurá Rivers, two main Amazon tributaries 250 miles (400 km) west of Manaus—with Jaú National Park to its east and Mamirauá SDR to its west. It creates a 400-mile-long (640-km) rain forest corridor, the largest protected forest area in the world, some 22,250 square miles (57,660 km2), part of an ambitious corridor protection program of state government with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Sociedade Civil Mamirauá to be managed under a conservation category allowing indigenous peoples to remain and become active participants in protecting resources on which their livelihoods depend.

Concentrations of endangered Amazonian manatees, pink river dolphins, black caimans, jaguars, harpy eagles, parrots, toucans, brilliant macaws, great lumbering tapirs, and more are here; much of the region is still unexplored and uncatalogued. Scientists beginning research in Jaú already have found a woodcreeper long thought extinct; a beetle the size of a human palm; and one of the world’s largest, rarest moths, an imperial with six-inch (15-cm) wingspan, as well as 150 new fish species.

Also, Amazon National Park, almost 3,900 square miles (10,120 km2) near Itaituba (with hotels) south of Santarém, is a good way to sample the basin and its wildlife, with cabins (no restaurants) and campsites near the entrance in Urua.

Although roads are being built, rivers remain the easiest way to get around the Amazon basin, both for local people and ecotourists. Brazilian Amazon’s two gateway cities are Manaus and Belém, both reachable by major scheduled air, with hotels and tour companies where arrangements can be made for guides, boat travel (most interesting trips are upriver from Manaus, not down), and jungle lodges. Internal Brazilian air-taxis are relatively efficient and inexpensive for touching down in several places.

Brazil’s 350 national and state parks and ecological stations officially protect about five percent of the country—over 115,800 square miles (300,000 km2). Regrettably, so far more than two-thirds of them exist only on paper. The underfunded and understaffed Brazilian Institute for Environmental Protection—IBAMA—has been unable to oversee them adequately, and visitors may find it hard to get information. More enlightened government policies may yet halt continuing destruction of Amazon rain forest and the remaining five-to-seven percent of original Atlantic forest, whose rich habitats and wild inhabitants are among the most imperiled anywhere. However, despite many problems, spectacular places remain.

The Amazon, world’s largest river, discharges a quarter of all the free-flowing freshwater on earth in its 200-mile-wide (330-km) mouth—in flood season 50 million gallons (200 million liters) per second—depositing a load of sediment visible 120 miles (300 km) from shore. Its1,100 tributaries, many themselves among the world’s largest rivers, originate in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil and drain over half of South America, over 4.7 million square miles (12 million km2)—an area almost the size of Australia.

Named for fierce female warriors reported by Spanish explorers, the Amazon for almost half its 4,007-mile (6,448-km) length flows through the world’s greatest rain forest covering an area larger than all of western Europe. Rain forest soil is not rich but nature has adapted so fungi and insects help dead leaves and other vegetation decompose rapidly here, releasing minerals and nutrients for immediate use by the living. So well do forest plants absorb nutrients that 98 percent of the phosphate dissolved in rain is incorporated before it reaches the forest floor.

During flood season the river rises the height of a eight-story building, with fish evolved to feed on tree fruit dropped in the water in surrounding forest. During new and full moons a tidal bore or wave front up to 16 feet (3 m) high sweeps in from the ocean at speeds more than 40 miles an hour (65 kph), its ultimate effects reaching some 400 miles (640 km) upstream.

The Amazon ecosystem is so vast that though much has been despoiled by shortsighted and irreversible exploitation, large areas remain wild and unexplored, home to earth’s greatest diversity of birds, insects and plants.

Over 2,000 kinds of birds are here—almost a quarter of the world’s total—and over 2,000 freshwater fish species, half of all those known in the world, including species that have evolved armored protection against 30 kinds of rapacious piranhas.

There are more than 300 mammals and at least one million insect species, including 1,800 kinds of butterflies; a Goliath bird-eating spider; 80,000 woody plants alone including Victoria water lilies two yards (2 m) across; among reptiles and amphibians, 10-yard-long (10-m) anacondas and exquisitely colored “poison arrow” frogs; and scientists believe many more in all of these categories remain to be discovered and identified.

Sun is directly overhead all year so days are always about 12 hours’ long. Temperatures are warm but not torrid, ranging generally from 74 to 86°F (24–30°C) over 24 hours with rains in short heavy downpours several times weekly, so humidity can be oppressive, 80 percent or higher. Best times generally are drier July–November.

Brazil

as well as...

Amaña Sustainable Development Reserve

Jaú National Park

Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve

Amazon National Park

IGUAÇU FALLS

MATA ATLANTICA BIOSPHERE RESERVE as well as...

Caraça National Park

Caratinga Biological Station

Itatiaia National Park

PANTANAL as well as...

Transpantaneira Highway

Parque Nacional do Pantanal Matogrossense

Das Emas National Park



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