- In an effort to safeguard almost a quarter of Earth's biological diversity, Conservation International (CI) and South America's five Andean nations are working together to build one of the most comprehensive and integrated networks of protected areas in the world.
Collaborating with local communities, partner NGOs and the governments of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, CI has helped develop six Conservation Corridors - five terrestrial and one coastal-marine. Conservation Corridors are patchworks of reserves, indigenous lands, multi-use and managed areas that stretch across international boundaries to link core protected areas.
"It has been known for decades that landscape connectivity is absolutely vital for the long-term survival of species and the health of ecosystems," said Robert Bensted-Smith, the director of CI's Center for Biodiversity Conservation - Andes. "These five countries have embraced the concept wholeheartedly. Nowhere else on Earth are nations this rich in biodiversity taking such a comprehensive and integrated approach to managing their protected areas."
Since launching the Conservation Corridor concept in 2000, CI has helped develop about 1-million km² (approx. 404,370 square miles) of terrestrial conservation corridors in the Andes. Covering an area just under the size of South Africa, the corridors link hundreds of national parks and private reserves. From snow-covered Andean peaks, to the dense jungles of Colombia's Chocó, the corridors contain some of the most varied and beautiful terrain in the hemisphere. They are dynamic, evolving landscapes that are home to hundreds of communities and ethnic groups that actively participate in conservation activities.
These five Andean nations are home to 24 percent of the Earth's total biodiversity and all are among the 17 most "megadiverse" countries on the planet. But the region's biological wealth is increasingly under threat. Population has almost quadrupled in the last 50 years to an estimated 110 million today. Deforestation, extraction activities, natural resource depletion and unbridled agricultural are also taking their toll. According to The World Conservation Union (IUCN) 2000 Red List, 266 terrestrial vertebrates in the Andes are threatened.
CI's flagship effort is the Vilcabamba-Amboró Conservation Corridor (approx. 297,962 km²), which stretches from the Vilcabamba Mountain Range in northern Peru to Amboró National Park in Bolivia. Linking 16 protected areas and their buffer zones, the corridor safeguards part of the Tropical Andes Hotspot
"The Tropical Andes Hotspot is the richest and most diverse of all that Hotspots on the planet - it is simply unmatched," says CI President Russell Mittermeier. "In just over a million square kilometers it holds 15 to 17 percent of the world's entire plant life; it's an awe-inspiring place that has been aptly described as the epicenter of global biodiversity."
Ultimately, the Vilcabamba-Amboró Conservation Corridor will be linked with others to form a single contiguous backbone of managed areas following the Andes mountain range in a sweeping arc up through Ecuador and across Colombia and Venezuela. Parallel efforts will safeguard Pacific marine reserves, the forests of Venezuela and the Chocó-Darién Western Ecuador Hotspot
, which runs south from the Panama Canal through Colombia, Ecuador and into northern Peru.
"The reason Conservation Corridors are working is that we have involved governments, local communities, indigenous leaders, the private sector and stakeholders at every level," explained CI Vice President of the Andes Regional Program Roberto Roca. "We are adamant about creating a system of protected areas that focuses on biodiversity conservation but doesn't lose sight of community participation, local traditions and historical land rights."
CI has gone to great lengths to consolidate the corridors. Early this year, CI worked with indigenous communities and the Peruvian government to create the Otishi National Park and the Ashaninka and Machiguenga Community Reserves inside the Vilcabamba-Amboró Conservation Corridor. And in June, CI reached an important agreement with the general secretariat of the Andean Community trading bloc to implement that organization's regional biodiversity conservation strategy.
Also for the first time, CI is taking the corridor approach to the seas. In 2002 it inaugurated the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape Corridor, which includes the world-renowned Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin visited during his pioneering voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1831. The corridor sweeps northward all the way to the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica. Built around island reserves and no-take zones, the strategy incorporates lessons learned from decades of terrestrial experience to create the world's first Marine Conservation Corridor.
The Andean Conservation Corridors
The Vilcabamba-Amboró Conservation Corridor
(approx. 297,962 km²): Stretching across Perú and Bolivia, this corridor's core is the Tambopata-Madidi complex, which scientists estimate holds 1,000 bird species, or roughly 11 percent of all bird species on the planet. It is also home to 8 percent of all the endangered and critically endangered species in the Andes. The corridor is home to 40 distinct ethnic groups, which play a role in its conservation. The corridor links 16 natural protected areas and their buffer zones, including Manu National Park, which protects three highly distinct ecosystems: the Andean grasslands, cloud forest, and the lowland Amazon rainforest.
Cóndor-Kutukú Conservation Corridor
(approx. 98,302 km²): Off limits to researchers for decades due to a historic border dispute between Ecuador and Peru, this area is ripe for new discoveries. During a six-week biological assessment (1993-1994) CI found dozens of plant species completely new to science, including 20 orchid species. The forests of the Cóndor mountain range are critical to the hydrological cycle that links the Andes to the Amazon wilderness. The Ecuadorian government recently declared two new protected areas within the corridor: the Nangaritza Protected Forest (129,000 ha) and the Colambo Yacuri Protected Forest (70,000 ha).
The Chocó-Manabí Conservation Corridor
(approx. 106,863 km²): Covering parts of the Pacific coasts of Colombia and Ecuador, this corridor safeguards 90 percent of the Chocó-Darién Western Ecuador Hotpot
. The dense, humid forests of the Colombian Chocó have been identified as one of the world's most important areas for conservation of biological and cultural diversity. Scientists estimate that of the 9,000 vascular plant species found there (Gentry '90)
, 25 percent are found nowhere else on the planet. The region is also home to 830 bird species, 85 of which are unique to the area. The corridor links more than 45 reserves and protected areas.
North Andean Conservation Corridor
(approx. 84,878 km²): Encompassing parts of Venezuela and Colombia, this area holds more than 5,000 vascular plants (506 of which are endemic), 111 mammal species, 259 bird species and 35 reptile species. It is also one of the last refuges for seven threatened species of mammals and birds. In addition, the region is home to 55 percent of Colombia's unique high-altitude system of grasslands, scrublands, wetlands and aquatic systems called paramo
. On the Colombian side alone it links more than 60 protected areas and provides water for 30 percent of the nation.
Caura-Guyana Shield Conservation Initiative
(approx. 442,922 km²): Centered in southern Venezuela, but reaching into Guyana, French Guyana, Brazil, Colombia and Suriname, the shield is recognized as the single most intact tropical wilderness area in the world. Concentrating much of Venezuela's diversity, its lowland montane forests, clouds forests, subalpine herbaceous vegetation and rocky outcrops, make it one of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth.
Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape
(approx. 2.1-million km²): The region's newest corridor, this bold marine initiative stretches from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador northward though Gorgona National Park in Colombia and Coiba Island National Park in Panama before reaching the Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica. Galapagos alone is home to hundreds of endemic and particularly vulnerable species of birds, reptiles, fish, marine mammals and plants. It is home to as many as 750,000 seabirds, including 19 resident species - five of which are endemic. There are also 22 species of Galapagos reptiles and six species of mammals native to the islands. Cocos Island is equally rich in species diversity and endemism, including 235 species of plants (70 endemic), 362 species of insects (64 endemic), 85 species of birds (four endemic) and three endemic species of spiders, many of these species are in danger of extinction.