Peru Protects Vast 'Yellowstone of the Amazon'

The iconic 'El Cono' rises up from the rain forest in Peru's Sierra del Divisor National Park. (Photo: Diego Perez/Rainforest Trust)

A giant swath of the Amazon rain forest just became a little safer, thanks to a sprawling new national park established by the government of Peru this week.

Named Sierra del Divisor National Park, the nature preserve covers about 14,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles, or 3.3 million acres) of pristine rain forest in the Amazon basin. It's home to an array of indigenous people as well as more than 3,000 species of native plants and animals, many of which exist nowhere else.

It's being heralded as "the Yellowstone of the Amazon," thanks to its unique landscapes and abundant wildlife, although the park is actually larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks combined. And yet despite this impressive size, the park's enormity is only part of what makes it such a big deal.

Beyond merely being huge, the new park helps link a patchwork of surrounding preserves to solidify the 67 million-acre Andes-Amazon Conservation Corridor, one of the largest tracts of protected areas in the Amazon. By filling in this gap, it strengthens the regional wildlife corridors that help boost the genetic diversity of rare species and give wildlife more space for adapting to climate change.

"The Sierra del Divisor is the final link in an immense protected area complex that extends for more than 1,100 miles from the banks of the Amazon in Brazil to the snowy peaks of the Peruvian Andes," says Paul Salaman, CEO of Rainforest Trust, in a statement issued by the U.S.-based nonprofit group. "This permanent conservation corridor is one of the greatest refuges for biodiversity on Earth."

Sierra del Divisor National Park
A map of the newly created Sierra del Divisor National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. (Photo: Rainforest Trust)

A map of the newly created Sierra del Divisor National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. (Image: Rainforest Trust)

Sierra del Divisor is home to a wide range of wildlife, including giant armadillos, jaguars, pumas, tapirs, monkeys, nearly 80 species of amphibians, 300 varieties of fish and more than 550 types of birds. It's also home to several indigenous human communities, such as the Isconahua, a tribe of about 300 to 400 native people who live in voluntary isolation from the outside world.

The region is still largely unexplored, and represents what the Rainforest Trust calls "one of the Amazon's last true wildernesses." Its forests and rivers likely contain a wealth of species that are unknown to science, some of which may hold secrets about life-saving medicines or potential sources of biomimicry.

And in the meantime, the park also offers another major bonus: carbon storage. Its trees and other vegetation will help capture an estimated 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to Peruvian environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal. That's equivalent to about 40 percent of the country's daily CO2 output, and it adds a timely luster to this announcement. In just three weeks, world leaders will convene in Paris for a high-stakes summit to negotiate a global treaty on curbing climate change.

Sierra del Divisor became a protected zone in 2006, but conservationists and local communities have spent a decade pushing for its upgrade to a national park. Doing so is expected to fortify it against illegal logging, mining and drug trafficking by raising the penalties for such crimes. Peru President Ollanta Humala signed a decree on Nov. 8 to formalize the park, a move quickly cheered by supporters around the world.

"To call Sierra del Divisor the Yellowstone of the Amazon is an understatement," Adrian Forsyth, director of the Andes Amazon Fund, tells Mongabay. "As magnificent and important as Yellowstone is, the newly created Sierra del Divisor is several multiples larger. Its primary forests are massive and maintain not just immense stores of carbon but are also the ark that will help carry huge amounts of biodiversity through the climate change bottleneck. Thousands of indigenous people now have their ancestral homeland and the natural life support systems that sustain their communities protected by national law. It's a huge win for the planet!"