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What's an Oxbow Lake?

An oxbow lake is a natural lake formed by the normal shifting of river waters, which have fashioned a new streambed in the riverbanks. The old riverbed fills with water and forms a lake. Oxbow lakes are essentially designed to become extinct. After forming, they have life expectancies of perhaps 400 years; they expand but then become shallower as river flooding and runoff deposits sediment, sand, and leaves and then begin to dry up as grasses and trees take root. Oxbow lakes, which can be very large and superb spots for wildlife viewing, are so named because they are shaped like an old-fashioned U-shaped yoke.

The Amazon in Danger

Could the vast Amazon rainforest disappear from the face of the earth during our lifetimes? Some scientists now maintain that the forest itself -- not to mention the many thousands of plant, animal, bird, and insect species that call it home -- is in imminent danger of extinction. A mathematical model by an American researcher, presented at a 2001 Geology Society conference in Scotland, suggests that the destruction of Amazonian rainforests could be irreversible in a few years, and forecasts the wholesale destruction of Brazil's rainforest in about 40 years.

Peru, the origin of the great Amazon River, boasts some of the largest and most biologically diverse rainforests in the world. The country counts 84 of 103 existing ecosystems and 28 of the 32 climates on the planet among its remarkable statistics. Peru has 72 million hectares (178 million acres) of natural-growth forests -- 70% in the Amazon jungle region -- that comprise nearly 60% of the national territory. But it's losing nearly 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of rainforest annually. In other Amazon basin countries, the picture is even bleaker. Half the world's known plant and animal species live in rainforests, but according to the World Resources Institute, more than 100 species become extinct in the world every day due to tropical deforestation. The destruction of their habitats is estimated at 81,000 hectares (200,150 acres) each day -- an area larger than New York City. Less than 50 years ago, 15% of the earth's land surface was rainforest. Today that total has been reduced to a mere 6%.

The primary threats to Peru's tropical forests are deforestation caused by agricultural expansion, cattle ranching, logging, oil extraction and spills, mining, illegal coca farming, and colonization initiatives. Deforestation has shrunk territories belonging to indigenous peoples and wiped out more than 90% of the population. In the southern Amazon's Madre de Dios department, 3 decades of gold prospecting have pushed isolated tribes to the edge of extinction. Along with the threats to communities comes cultural extinction: Knowledge of plants and natural medicines, traditional ways of life, and even languages are lost. In Peru's Amazon jungle, new languages are being discovered even as others become extinct. Once-isolated communities in the jungle spoke up to 150 languages; today, only 53 survive and 25 of them are in danger of extinction, according to the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Governments in developing countries have traditionally been reluctant to adopt tough measures to halt deforestation, bowing to the need for "economic development" and offering inducements to industry and extraction practices that have ranged from rubber extraction to logging and oil drilling. Slash-and-burn clearing of land, unproductive farming, and overhunting by marginalized people living in and around the jungle have further denuded the landscape of vegetation and animals. And, 500 years ago, an estimated 10 million indigenous people inhabited the Amazon rainforest; by the 21st century, that population had dropped to less than 200,000.

Can anything be done to save the Amazon and its people, plants, and animals? Leaving the rainforests intact, with their wealth of nuts, fruits, oil-producing plants, and medicinal plants, has greater economic value than destroying them for unsustainable short-term interests. More than six times as much can be earned from sustainable harvests of fruit, cocoa, timber, and rubber from the rainforest tract than commercial logging produces. Slash-and-burn practices, which involve no preparation of the land and no safeguards to make its yield sustainable, destroy the land's capacity to produce: A plot can be burned just twice before a farmer must abandon it and search for another, uncultivated piece of land.

For most of the 20th century, Peru gave carte blanche to oil and gas exploration by multinationals in the Amazon basin, and the government looked the other way with regard to invasive gold mining in Indian communities. However, Peru has done a slightly better job of setting aside tracts of rainforest as national park reserves and regulating industry than have some other Latin American and Asian countries. The Manu Biosphere Reserve, the Tambopata National Reserve, and the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve are three of the largest protected rainforest areas in the world, and the government regulates entry of tour groups. Peru augmented the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, which was created in 1996, by 809,000 hectares (nearly 2 million acres) in 2001. INRENA, Peru's Institute for Natural Resource Management, enforces logging regulations and reseeds Peru's Amazon forests. A handful of international and Peruvian environmental and conservation groups, such as ProNaturaleza and Conservation International are active in Peru, working on reforestation and sustainable forestry projects.

Many conservationists have mixed feelings about promoting ecotourism in endangered habitats. Responsible tourism has the potential to educate people about the rainforest and its threats and could spur much-needed activism. The income produced by ecotourism is vital to local communities -- many of whom are increasingly dependent upon tourists to buy their handicrafts or to lead on treks into the jungle -- and to countries, as an incentive to protect the very things tourists come to see. A small handful of lodges in the rainforest have successfully integrated local tribes into the running of the lodges. The lodges and tour operators I've recommended for travel in the Amazon all profess to practice responsible, low-impact tourism. Please do your utmost to follow suit. If you witness a tour group or lodge practicing unsafe ecotourism, by all means report it to either INRENA (tel. 01/224-3298) or PromPerú (tel. 01/224-3279), or to the tourist information offices in Cusco (tel. 084/263-176) or Iquitos (tel. 065/235-621).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.