Seventeen years ago, Canadian biologist Adrian Forsyth slipped into lyricism as he described the great wilderness known as Tambopata-Candamo in Peru. The cloud forests there, he wrote in an official report, “are dense with every limb matted with fern, orchid and moss and the only trails are those of the secretive spectacled bear and elusive mountain lion…. Along the banks of the Tambopata brilliant flocks of macaws concentrate by the hundreds to feed on mineral-rich soil pockets. Giant otters hunt the rivers for enormous catfish. Vast expanses of forest extend in all directions.”
This untouched paradise lay near the headwaters of the Amazon, and Forsyth and 23 colleagues explored it, charting its biodiversity for Conservation International and recording 575 bird species and 1200 butterfly species, the second richest documented butterfly community in the world. Their final report pleaded powerfully for the protection of this vast emerald wilderness. But the key to Tambopata-Condamo’s fate lay in just four words in that 184-page-long report: “mineral-rich soil pockets.” Today, nearly two decades after Forsyth waxed eloquent, steepling gold prices and a government seemingly paralyzed by corruption are transforming part of this paradise—the Madre de Dios river and its surrounding forest—into an ecological disaster on a grand scale. “It looks like Mordor,” said Alex Chepstow-Lusty, a paleoecologist at the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima, in an interview I did with him in February.
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Photo. Tambopata, courtesy Dirac 3000