Where we work

Madre de Dios

The Madre de Dios Department of southeastern Peru has been called the ‘Biodiversity Capital of the World’ – more species of plants and animals can be found here than almost any other place on the planet. A few hectares of tropical rainforest in the Las Piedras River basin, for instance, where we focus our research, conservation, and education efforts, contain more species of tree than all of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the most biodiverse park in the United States. The region is also a hotspot for butterfly diversity: working at one site in the nearby Tambopata National Reserve and another in Peru’s Manu National Park (also in Madre de Dios), Peruvian entomologists have identified over 1,500 species. Compare that to fewer than 800 butterflies in all of North America!


In addition to holding world records for numbers of plant and animal species, Madre de Dios is home to numerous, highly charismatic wildlife species. Giant river otters, which are rare and declining throughout much of their range in the Amazon basin, can be easily observed in many of the region’s rivers and oxbow lakes. Parrots and brightly-colored macaws flock in the hundreds to ‘colpas,’ where they feed on salt-rich clay from exposed river banks; clouds of brilliantly colored butterflies also gather at the river’s edge in large numbers to seek salts, sometimes even from the tear ducts of giant black caiman and river turtles. Jaguars are also regularly seen resting on riverside beaches – with as many as 6,000 individuals found in Madre de Dios, the region is a stronghold for yet another important species that is declining across vast stretches of its ancestral range in the Amazon.


Conservation Challenges

While human density in Madre de Dios is currently low, and forest cover is high compared to many other Amazonian regions, both planned and unregulated development and extractive activities are emerging as significant threats to the region’s biodiversity. With the recent completion of the Interoceanic Highway, which connects the city of Cusco in the Andes with the regional capital of Puerto Maldonado and Rio Branco in Brazil, a flood of colonists from the Peruvian highlands has descended upon the rainforest in search of economic opportunity.


Perhaps the most important ongoing environmental in the region crisis is gold mining, which is essentially uncontrolled and ubiquitous across vast swaths of rainforest in Madre de Dios. For instance, in the buffer zone of the Tambopata National Reserve alone, which is an area ostensibly protected by the Peruvian national government, an estimated 14,000 gold miners are clearing forest and prostpecting for gold in an area locally known as ‘La Pampa.’ The area, which has recently been the topic of local and international media coverage, is an immense, desertified wasteland in what was, only several years ago, pristine and highly biodiverse rainforest. In addition to forest loss, mercury used in the extraction of gold from alluvial sediments has caused extreme environmental pollution, such that an alarming number of local residents show elevated levels of mercury contamination, stemming in part from the consumption of locall-caught fish containing high levels of the toxic metal.


A second major environmental challenge, which is also related to road development in the region, is the uncontrolled expansion of the agricultural frontier. With the completion of the Interoceanic Highway, loggers have invaded the rainforests along its margins, and once the valuable timber has been extracted, the forest is often cleared for cattle pasture or agriculture. A wave of papaya plantations has recently gripped the region, and the rainforest is rapidly giving way to this cash crop that is destined to external markets in Cusco and beyond. And as the forest recedes progressively from the road margin, so too do wildlife populations. Hunters have rapidly extirpated certain animal species such as larger monkeys and top predators, including jaguars.


Our work focuses, in particular, on the rapidly expanding deforestation front along the margins of the Interoceanic Highway in Madre de Dios, and is based at Finca Las Piedras, located about one hour north of Puerto Maldonado by car. Click here to read more about our research, conservation, and education programs in the region, and what we’re doing to promote the sustainable use of natural resources and the conservation of biodiversity for the benefit of all who live in and depend upon the Amazon rainforest.


Our research, education, and outreach programs are based at Finca Las Piedras in southeastern Peru, where the Andes Mountains meet the vast Amazon basin.

Peru's Madre de Dios region, where most of our projects are based, is home to more than 1,300 species of butterflies, a world record.

Illegal logging is a major threat to biodiversity in the Amazon, as well as other extractive activities such as gold mining.

We are working to protect the Amazon's extraordinary biodiversity for future generations.