When people think of Bolivia they generally conjure up images of somewhere high (La Paz), dry (altiplano) or salty (Uyuni salt plains). While this may be true for large areas of the country, there’s much more to the Bolivian landscape than mountains. The range of altitude – 130m in the jungles of the Amazon Basin to 6542m on the peaks of the rugged Andes – has resulted in a huge variety of ecological and geological niches supporting a bewildering variety of nature.

Natural Assets

Environmentally, Bolivia is one of the most diverse countries on the continent. The country has 1415 bird species and 5000 described plant species, some of the highest numbers in the world. It’s also among the neotropical countries with the highest level of endemism (species which exist only in Bolivia), with 21 birds, 28 reptiles, 72 amphibians and 25 mammals found nowhere else on earth.

But while it may seem obvious that Bolivia’s natural resources are one of its greatest assets, not everybody values assets that don’t have a direct monetary value. From the lush tropical forests of Amboró National Park to the wetlands of the Pantanal, the scrub that obscures the Chaco gas fields and the Polylepis woodlands of the Andes, the Bolivian environment is under constant threat from destruction for economic exploitation.

As the Bolivian economy keeps on growing, and the expectations of the newly empowered populace continue to rise, the country is struggling to balance the tireless demand for progress with the need to implement a sustainable and responsible exploitation of its natural resources. With the uncertain effects of climate change thrown into the mix, the Bolivian environment is facing its biggest challenges in millennia and its populace, albeit unwittingly, is dependent on a positive outcome.

The Land

Two Andean mountain chains define the west of the country, with many peaks above 6000m. The western Cordillera Occidental stands between Bolivia and the Pacific coast. The eastern Cordillera Real runs southeast, then turns south across central Bolivia, joining the other chain to form the southern Cordillera Central.

The haunting altiplano (altitude 3500m to 4000m), is boxed in by these two great cordilleras. It’s an immense, nearly treeless plain punctuated by mountains and solitary volcanic peaks. At the altiplano’s northern end, straddling the Peruvian border, Lake Titicaca is one of the world’s highest navigable lakes. In the far southwestern corner, the land is drier and less populated. The salty remnants of two vast ancient lakes, the Salar de Uyuni and the Salar de Coipasa, are there as well.

East of the Cordillera Central are the Central Highlands, a region of scrubby hills, valleys and fertile basins with a Mediterranean-like climate. North of the Cordillera Real, the rainy Yungas form a transition zone between arid highlands and humid lowlands.

More than half Bolivia’s total area is in the Amazon Basin, with sweaty tropical rainforest in the western section, and flat cerrado savannas and extensions of the Pantanal wetland in the east. In the country’s southeastern corner is the nearly impenetrable scrubland of the Gran Chaco, an arid, thorny forest that experiences the highest temperatures in the country.

Wildlife

Animals

Bolivia is one of the best places on the continent to observe wildlife and even seasoned wildlife watchers will be impressed by the diversity on show.

The distribution of wildlife is dictated by the country’s geography and varies considerably from region to region. The altiplano is home to vicuñas, flamingos and condors; the Chaco to secretive jaguars, pumas and peccaries; the Pantanal provides refuge for giant otters, marsh deer and waterbirds; and the Amazon Basin contains the richest density of species on earth, featuring an incredible variety of reptiles, parrots, monkeys, hummingbirds, butterflies, fish and bugs (by the zillion!).

Of course the animals that steal the show are the regional giants: the majestic jaguar, the continent's top predator; the elephant-nosed tapir (anta) and the lolloping giant anteater. The ostrichlike rhea or piyo, the continent's biggest bird is here too and it can be surprisingly common in some areas. You may even be lucky enough to spot the breathtaking Andean condor – revered by the Inca – soaring on mountain thermals.

River travelers are almost certain to see capybaras (like giant aquatic guinea pigs), caiman (alligators) and river dolphins. It’s not unusual to see anacondas in the rivers of the department of Beni (an endemic species hangs out here, the Beni anaconda) and a spot of piranha fishing is virtually an obligation for anybody spending time in the Amazon.

Overland travelers frequently see armadillos, foxes, jochis (agoutis) and the domesticated camelids of the altiplano, the bad-tempered llama and the fuzzy alpaca. Similar, but more delicately proportioned, is the smaller vicuña, once mercilessly hunted for its woolly coat but now recovering well.

With massive government investment in the road network, getting around Bolivia is now easier than ever, and the country is experiencing a minor revolution as an exotic bird-watching destination with more remote areas becoming newly accessible. This is thanks in no small measure to a series of gloriously charismatic endemics such as the blue-throated and red-fronted macaws, which have the star power to pull twitchers halfway across the globe for the chance to tick them.

Threatened Species

Though anteaters and jaguars get all the headlines, these species are widespread throughout South America and the most threatened members of the Bolivian fauna are not necessarily the most conspicuous or famous. There are exceptions of course: the endangered Chaco peccary, an enormous piglike creature known only from fossil remains until 1976; the elusive spectacled bear; or the Golden Palace titi monkey, which hit the world headlines when a Canadian casino paid a fortune for the rights to name it.

Among the most threatened wildlife in the highlands are the little known deer, the North Andean huemul, the Andean hairy armadillo and the endemic short-tailed chinchilla, sought after for its luxurious fur. The windswept lakes of the Southern Altiplano are the exclusive habitat of the rare James flamingo, while the charming Cochabamba mountain finch has a total range of just 3500 sq km, perilously close to the city of Cochabamba.

The Amazon Basin may be famous for its pink river dolphins, but rather less well known is the blue-throated macaw (barba azul) a species considered critically endangered and thought to number fewer than 300 individuals. The mythical unicorn bird of the Yungas, more properly known as the horned currasow, was long thought to be extinct until its recent rediscovery here. This is also the haunt of the wondrously colored Palkachupa Cotinga, gilded with gold and black.

In the Pantanal region the golden spear-nosed bat lives only in a handful of caves, while the hyacinth macaw has suffered for its comical appearance through capture for the pet trade. Another eye-catching parrot, the green, red and yellow red-fronted macaw of the dry inter-Andean valleys around Vallegrande, is also on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 4000 remaining.

Some of Bolivia’s most remarkable threatened species however aren't so pretty. Consider the bizarre marsupial frogs of the genus Gastrotheca, which includes five species in Bolivia that are all threatened with extinction, and the Jabba the Hutt–like Titicaca giant frog, confined to Bolivia’s most famous lake. The latter can weigh up to 400g and is under extreme pressure because of a local belief that drinking the juice from the liquidized amphibian has aphrodisiac properties. More information is online at www.bolivianamphibianinitiative.org.

Plants

Because of its enormous range of altitudes, Bolivia enjoys a wealth and diversity of flora rivaled only by its Andean neighbors. No fewer than 895 plants are considered endemic to the country, including 16 species of passion-fruit vines and at least three genera of orchids.

In the overgrazed highlands, the only remaining vegetable species are those with some defense against grazing livestock or those that are unsuitable for firewood. Much of what does grow in the highlands grows slowly and is endangered, including the globally threatened genus of Polylepis shrubs which form dense, low forests at altitudes of up to 5300m, making them the highest growing arborescent plants in the world.

The lower elevations of the temperate highland hills and valleys support vegetation superficially reminiscent of that of Spain or California. The area around Samaipata is particularly rich in endemic plants, including a cactus Samaipaticereus and a bromeliad Tillandsia samaipatensis, while the gigantic Bolivian mountain coconut Parajubaea torallyi of the inter-Andean valleys is the world’s highest growing palm.

The moist upper slopes of the Yungas are characterized by dwarf forest. Further down the slopes stretches the cloud forest, where the trees grow larger and the vegetation thicker. Northern Bolivia’s lowlands consist of islands of true rainforest dotted with vast wetlands and endangered cerrado savannas, while the Amazon Basin contains the richest botanical diversity on earth.

National Parks & Reserves

Bolivia has protected 18% of its total land by declaring 22 national protected areas and additional regional reserves under what is known as the Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas (SNAP). The system is one of the most extensive on the continent, but despite covering much of Bolivia’s most amazing landscapes, the reality is that most reserves are only nominally protected. Pressure continues to build on the protected areas system as the remote frontiers of the country are opened up to development, and the age-old technique of protection through inaccessibility is becoming less effective.

Management of the system of protected areas is by the government-run administrative body Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas. To try to address the chronic financial and staffing issues that this body faces, local and international NGOs have worked with Sernap to create innovative ways to preserve select habitats, with varying degrees of success.

Such projects have typically aimed to encourage local involvement and comanagement of protected areas in an effort to attract tourists to community-based, ecotourism experiences, as well as to produce commercially viable natural products, including medicinal patents.

Environmental Issues

Environmental issues are becoming an increasingly pressing issue in Bolivia. Environmentalists are concerned that accelerating economic growth is not being tempered by the necessary measures to maintain a sound ecological balance. Besides extensive land clearing for agricultural monocultures (particularly soybean), ranching and hydrocarbon exploration, there are also concerns about the future of freshwater supplies, with glaciers melting and the rivers increasingly polluted, especially in areas where mining is the major industry.

Many local nonprofit groups are working on countrywide environmental conservation efforts.

El Chaqueo: the Big Smoke

Each dry season, from July through September, Bolivia’s skies fill with a thick pall of smoke, obscuring the air, occasionally canceling flights, aggravating allergies and causing respiratory strife. This is all the result of el chaqueo, the slashing and burning of the savannas (and some forest) for agricultural and grazing land. A prevailing notion is that the rising smoke forms rain clouds and ensures good rains for the coming season. In reality the hydrological cycle, which depends on transpiration from the forest canopy, is interrupted by the deforestation resulting in diminished rainfall.

Ranchers in the Beni department have long set fire to the savannas annually to encourage the sprouting of new grass. These days, however, the most dramatic defoliation is occurring along the highways in the country’s east, the new agricultural frontier. Here the forest is being consumed by expanding cattle ranches and pristine natural habitat is being replaced by seemingly endless monocultures. Although the burned vegetable matter initially provides rich nutrients for crops, those nutrients aren’t replenished. After two or three years the land is exhausted and it takes 15 years to become productive again. That’s too long for most farmers to wait; most just pull up stakes and burn larger areas.

As the rural population increases, so do the effects of el chaqueo. Despite the fact that this burning is prohibited by Bolivian forestry statutes, the law has proved impossible to enforce in the vast Bolivian lowlands. The long-term implications aren’t yet known but international pressure to reduce the negative effects of the burning has seen the Bolivian government implement a program encouraging lowland farmers to minimize el chaqueo in favor of alternatives that don’t drain the soil of nutrients.