To think that the Amazon River, an icon of the world’s geography, had no defined source for hundreds of years is utterly baffling but completely true. There were rumours of its mythic starting point being nestled in the craggy rocks of the Andes, but it was years until the truth was eventually discovered.
In 1996, explorer Jacek Palkiewicz followed in the footsteps of adventurers such as Jacques Cousteau and set out to determine the wellspring of the world’s second largest river once and for all. Speculation had split the world’s premier geologists and the debate over where the beginning of the river might be, or if it indeed existed, caused a schism that lasted for decades.
It was at the foot of the volcanic mount Nevado Mismi, the cornerstone of the Chila mountain range, that the birthplace of the Amazon was eventually found. Palkiewicz and his team had spent months trekking through the Andes to reach it. It turned out to be little more than a slowly moving glacial stream.
From that single stream came a river basin which is so monumental as to contain 1.4 billion acres of forests, spread out over 2,100,000 square miles. In this colossal area are millions of species, some of which have remained unclassified for decades, and many which have never been seen in the light of day. To put this into perspective, there are more than 8,000 species of insects alone residing in the entirety of the Amazon River basin.
Although the majority of the wildlife in the Amazon thrives in the balmy sub-tropical climate, the unfortunate fact is that the most complex river system in the world is home to some of the most endangered, yet unique animals to exist anywhere on the planet.
The Boto, also known as the pink river dolphin, is one of the few species of its kind that can survive in fresh water – making them a unique animal even amongst the endangered. These remarkable creatures can grow to over 2 metres, and have an irreplaceable role in the folklore of the indigenous people of the Amazon.
Incredibly, some tribes consider them guardians of the Amazonian manatee, and others have long regarded them as shape shifters called Encantando – mysterious men who speak with elders only to return to the waters of the river in the dead of night. Regardless of their magical reputation, today, they are threatened by catfish trawlers who believe them to be bad luck for the coming year. Nevertheless, they remain one of the most breath-taking marine animals in the whole of the basin, even if they are becoming a rare sight.
Even rarer is the poison dart frog – an amphibian that has a rather unusual tactic for avoiding the clutches of the main predators who roam the basin. Many creatures in the Amazon survive almost solely using camouflage, but the poison dart frog is an exhibitionist who uses its vivid exterior to warn predators they are unfit to eat. As their name might suggest, any predator unlucky enough to feast on these neon amphibians could perish within minutes, if not seconds. It’s a flamboyant form of defence, but one that has been mightily effective – their only real threat in recent years has been the climate change caused by deforestation.
The wonders of the Amazon, especially the 40,000 species of plant life that flourish in the basin, have often been threatened by even the simplest of logging practices. Macaws, spider monkeys, jaguars, and even rarer flora and fauna exist in a delicate balance throughout the entire rainforest, some of which are yet to be defined by science. With the untouched world of the Amazon dwindling, visiting this remarkable corner of the world should be a priority for every cruiser.