Today it is National Amazon Day! This isn’t about buying more books or music online but about celebrating the world’s largest rainforest.
At WWF-UK, I have the fortune of working to help preserve what is surely one of the natural wonders of the world. While sometimes the news from this part of the world can make heavy reading – deforestation continues at an alarming rate and dam construction is on the rise – there is also much in the Amazon to be amazed by.
One of the things that really surprises me about the Amazon is quite how little we know about it. I often get asked if jaguars come from the Amazon? If the Amazon is under threat? And how many species can be found in the Amazon? The truth is there are just too many species to know precisely but we do know that over 40,000 plant species, 1,300 birds, 3,000 fish species and over 400 mammals have been recorded.
And as for the population numbers of individual species, we know even less. On top of that we continue to discover species at an incredible rate. Between 1999 and 2013, 1,600 new species were discovered including new mammals and bird species. Consequently, an important area of our work is to encourage the public to have greater understanding of what lies within the Amazon treasure trove.
To coincide with Amazon Day, WWF and the Mamiraua Institute are publicising the preliminary results of an expedition undertaken to register the distribution of Amazon River dolphin species and estimate their abundance in the Tapajos River basin. The Tapajos basin is severely threatened by hydropower development, with government plans to build over 40 dams. We know the river dolphin is an excellent indicator of river health, but scarily we know very little about where they are found, their range, population size and abundance.
If you look on the IUCN Red List which details the status of threatened species across the planet, Amazon River dolphins are recorded as data deficient. So this expedition provides vital evidence about the status of river dolphins in the Tapajos River, which helps in our dialogue with the Brazilian Government about where best to build any new dams. Just over 260 dolphins were recorded along a 577km stretch of the river. Personally having had the pleasure of swimming alongside river dolphins in other parts of the Amazon is an incentive enough to fight tooth and nail to make sure these numbers move in the right direction in the future.
Similarly, this year we’re releasing a series of reports called State of the Amazon, which provide a baseline of information about the Amazon as we find it today. This will help us monitor the impact of our actions and hopefully help demonstrate the positive influence we are having there.
One of these reports analyses the rise and influence of protected areas in the Amazon, something we’ve had a big role in. Since 2002 nearly one hundred protected areas have been added in Brazil as part of the ARPA (Amazon Region Protected Areas Program) and earlier this year APRA For Life partners, which includes our work, created a $215 million “transition fund” from which Brazil will receive financing over a period of time that is sufficient for the government eventually to cover fully the significant costs of maintaining ARPA sites.
Unlike national parks here in the UK, national parks in Brazil are incredibly little known and visited by the public. If you have been to the Lake District over a bank holiday week you will certainly come to the conclusion that attracting more visitors is not a priority. But despite the incredible beauty and richness of species in national parks in Brazil, we are faced with a situation where national parks are not known or valued by the Brazilian public and as such subject to threats from development that we could not imagine back home.
A new photo exhibition in Brasilia, also part of the Amazon Day celebrations, aims to put that right, showcasing amazing pictures from three national parks, including Juruena National Park, covering an areas the size of Wales and whose existence is under threat from hydropower dams. Getting the public to appreciate the beauty and importance of these national parks is a critical step in securing their continued status.
I would argue that trees and rivers have an integral role in our daily lives spending most of my youth in Nottingham, I remember many a Sunday chasing my brother through Sherwood Forest dressed up in Lincoln green. And crossing the River Trent on the way to watch Notts County lose again at home. It is amazing to think that there is a forest 1.5 million times the size of Sherwood Forest, and running within it a river over twenty times as long as the River Trent. And unlike much of the planet which is already degraded and spoilt, much of the Amazon remains pristine and unexplored. But as economies in America boom and space for industrial and agricultural growth in other parts of the continent are exhausted, we need to ask ourselves for how much longer.
But today on Amazon Day, rather than painting a gloomy picture, I encourage people to celebrate the fact that this vast and beautiful place still exists. And with the right actions there is still time to keep it this way.