The Pacaya–Samiria National Reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Peru with an area of more than 2 million hectares (7,700 ml² , 20,800 km² or the equivalent of the state of New Jersey!). It is also the largest protected seasonal flooded forest in South America. The reserve is made up of three hydrographical basins: the Samiria River drainage, the Pacaya River drainage and the Yanayacu-Pucate drainage. On our cruise into the reserve we explore by ship, foot, and skiff to discover the wonders hidden inside…bring binoculars!
Delimited by two big rivers, the reserve is bordered by the Marañon River to the north and the Ucayali River in the South. At the junction of these two mighty rivers, the easternmost corner of the reserve, the Amazon River is born and begins its journey starting at 340 feet (104 meters) above sea level for another 1,926 miles (3,100 km) to the Atlantic Ocean.
Renowned for its biodiversity and with new species coming to light daily, up to now the reserve has been found to harbor over 500 species of birds (which makes up almost 64 percent of the total birds recorded for Peru and includes five of the eight species of macaw and the primitive-looking hoatzin), 132 species of mammals (this includes the pink and gray river dolphins, several monkey species, and giant river otters), 240 species of reptiles (including the giant anaconda and black caiman), 58 species of amphibians, 259 species of fish (includes the famous giant “paiche” and armored catfish) and well over 1,200 species of plants with more being described every day, many of medicinal significance.
The Pacaya-Samiria Reserve is characterized by a tropical wet climate with temperatures which range from 20 C (68 F) to 33 C (91 F) and a yearly rainfall of around 2000-3000 mm (80 – 120 inches), with slightly higher chances of rain showers in the first half of the year.
Of more significance to life in the region are the variations in river levels which can change overnight by several meters. In general, however, the changes in river levels mark a fairly well-established seasonality; from July through December water levels in the rivers decrease considerably reducing the sizes of rivers and lagoons and concentrating wildlife dependent on these habitats. Although it makes river travel up the smaller tributaries difficult, if not sometimes impossible, the chances of spotting certain species of aquatic wildlife is increased (otters, paiche). From January through June most of the area is flooded by water, with the highest level reached during March and April. This is the period of blooms and fruit production (which draws in the primates and many more) and allows small skiffs to enter a complex network of rivers, channels, and hidden lagoons.
Throughout the year, many species of primates can be found near the riverbanks and overhead in the canopy, and the bird species to be seen year-round are varied, numerous, and a thrill for all. A constant presence also is the pink and gray dolphins that have come to symbolize the Amazon basin waterways.
The Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve also includes a human population of around 100,000 people in many small population centers, mostly on the fringes of the reserve. They are principally “ribereños,” those descended from a mixed heritage and are dedicated to the sustainable exploitation of the natural resources such as fishing, agriculture, and hunting. During the last few years many of these peoples have been invited to join conservation efforts in the region and trained in ways to minimize their impact on the environment. They often work as “de facto” park wardens to inhibit illegal harvesting by outsiders of endangered species during critical times of the year for species reproduction.
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