Manu National Park

Manu National Park with adjacent areas has the largest, most diverse concentration of birds and other wildlife of any park on earth, and some of the rarest and most interesting. Here as in fewother places are monkey-eating harpy eagles, rainbow-hued macaws, spectacled bears, giant armadillos, mountain tapirs, and formidable 31-foot (9.6-m) aquatic anacondas, occasionally prey themselves for formidable giant river otters.

To suggest its extraordinarily rich biodiversity—15 percent of the world’s bird species can be found here. Census of a single 2.2-acre (1-ha) forest tract turned up 41,000 invertebrate species including 12,000 kinds of beetle. A single tree had 43 types of ant belonging to 26 different genera.

The Amazon River basin originates in Peru and much of it is made up of a rain forest which comprises half the country. It is the largest tropical forest in the world, covering 2.7 million square miles (7 million km2), the oldest continuous land environment on earth, and Manu National Park protects 5,920 square miles (15,350 km2) of it. With adjoining protected tracts, it is as close to pristine wilderness as exists anywhere. Small, nomadic, indigenous tribes live here as they have for eons, subsistence users of the forest, hunting with arrows, many all but unaware of its few visitors.

The U.N. Biosphere Reserve of which it is a major part touches eastern slopes of the cool high Andes and drops to a steamy few hundred feet above sea level. Along the way it offers uncounted small and large interrelated wildlife habitats that accommodate some 1,000 bird species, more than 200 mammals, and 15,000 plants. A half-million arthropods—insects and spiders—have been found, including more than 1,200 butterflies, and more of all these are being identified continuously as scientists explore and classify all that is here.

In the Andes, great Andean condors, black with flashing white patches on wings spreading 10 feet plus (3 m), soar high over hook-billed flower-piercer and thistletail birds in high grasslands and stunted elfin forest.

Descending to 7,500–10,200 feet (2,500–3,400 m), gray-breasted mountain toucans with blue eye-rings and outsized orange-spattered bills share tree bounty with barred fruit-eaters. Swallowtailed nightjars, bills agape, scoop up insect swarms among huge tree-ferns and 15-foot-tall (5-m) bamboo stands in humid temperate forest which is based in sedimentary and metamorphic rocks more than 440 million years old.

Below in subtropical forest dwells of one of the world’s most spectacular birds, Andean cocksof- the-rock, orange-scarlet with black wings, and permanently erect helmet-like crimson crests nearly covering their bills. These foot-long (32-cm) birds are quiet except on courtship leks where males gather to work themselves up to a fluttering frenzy, one of the world’s avian marvels, for often seemingly indifferent females.

Mixed bird flocks at this altitude may include dozens of species and hundreds of individuals— cerulean-capped manakins, versicolored barbets, paradise tanagers, orange-fronted plushcrowns, and others. Some forage in the forest canopy, others at mid-level, others in the understory, associating harmoniously because most employ species-specific foraging techniques. This reduces competition, while flocking together offers safety-in-numbers protection against forest falcons and other predators.

Below, humid tropical forest drops to 500 feet (150 m) in the Amazon basin proper where the Manu and Madre de Dios rivers slowly meander, offering ecological niche-opportunities for almost innumerable wild creatures. White sand beaches exposed in dry June–October are crowded with nesting large-billed and yellow-billed terns, pied lapwings, sand-colored nightjars. Statuesque jabiru and American wood storks and roseate spoonbills feed in the shallows, and thousands of migrating shorebirds touch down. On recently formed islands are willowloving orange-headed tanagers and river tyrannulets. In the forest, rarities like fruit-loving black-faced cotingas and, on the floor, rufus-fronted ant-thrushes can be seen with certainty only here. The air is melodic with songs of drab but tuneful nightingale wrens and musician birds.

On high riverbanks, hundreds of screaming scarlet macaws three feet (1 m) long converge with multihued parrot relatives of 28 species. Wheeling and squabbling, each looks for a place to snatch up clay (packed with important dietary minerals) with their bills.

Hunting quietly around oxbow lake edges are fasciated tiger-herons, wattled “walking-onwater” jacanas, silvered antbirds, sungrebes, sunbitterns, and wild-looking, primitive hoatzins, which scientists once speculated incorrectly might be a link with dinosaurs. Two feet (61 cm) long with bright blue faces, red eyes and long, frizzled, “bad-hair-day” crests, they are almost entirely vegetarian, a heavy fibrous diet that makes flight and balance clumsy and difficult. Young hatch in waterside nests where they hiss and pitch into the water if disturbed, diving and swimming, equipped with wing-claws that enable them to clamber up and around trees in safety—adaptations lost in adulthood.

Shy, dark, tousled spectacled bears with markings like white eye-glasses follow their primarily vegetarian diet in mountain woodlands. They are the only native South American bear and sole surviving “short-faced” bear—a group that once inhabited North and South America.

Jaguars, western hemisphere’s largest cat species, prowl lower forests, as do powerful pumas and smaller spotted ocelots, wary but frequently sighted in this protected tract, sometimes while drinking along rivers. Here rare, deceptively slow-looking black lizard-caimans up to 15 feet (almost 5 m) long bask, and playful groups of giant otters over 6.5 feet (2 m) long fish for everything from piranhas to electric eels. These insatiably curious, seemingly fearless mammals, endangered from overhunting for their sleek, luxurious fur, have been known to take on giant anacondas, world’s longest snakes. Up to 30 feet (9.6 m) long, these formidable water serpents lurk in shallows to capture unwary drinkers.

At least 13 kinds of monkeys chatter and swing about lowland forests, preyed on by monkeyeating harpy eagles with seven-foot (2+ m) wingspreads and talons seven inches (18 cm) long, the Amazon’s most powerful birds. Among primates are roaring red howlers, diminutive, restless, emperor tamarins decorated with superb imperial white mustaches, also woolly, spider, and the world’s smallest monkeys—tiny pygmy marmosets, each weighing barely four ounces (120 g).

Butterflies of dozens of species and every imaginable color and pattern gather at moist places (sometimes on moist passersby) not only to drink but for minerals released by the moisture (and on humans, perspiration). In the forest, iridescent blue morpho butterflies opening and closing their wings can shine like flickering spotlights in the gloom as far away as 60 feet (18 m).

Daylong—and nightlong—sounds range from interesting to borderline-deafening when eagles, kingfishers, songbirds, thunderous howler monkeys, jaguars, owls, giant crickets, and thousands of others sound off. Best times here are the (relatively) dry season May–October.

Threats include discovery of an enormous natural gas deposit believed to extend under the park’s northeast. Exploration already has damaged wildlife, polluted rivers, and driven out indigenous groups. Also proposed is a power station with road and gas pipeline passing through the reserve. Also poaching—spotted fur rugs still can be obtained!

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