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Global Connections

Panama's tropical paradise a 'hub of biodiversity'

By Susannah Palk and Denisa Morariu for CNN
  • Tropical forest covers over 43 percent of Panama's land surface
  • The country is home to 10,444 different types of plant species including 1,200 orchid varieties
  • Labeled a biological corridor connecting both North and Central America

(CNN) -- A hotbed of biodiversity, Panama's tropical habitats are home to some of the most diverse and exotic species of plants and animals on Earth.

Covering almost half the country's land surface are immense tracks of rainforests, mangrove wetlands and mountain cloud forests.

Even the country's cosmopolitan capital of Panama City boasts a forest within its city boundaries -- one of the last tropical dry forests in Central America.

In all, the country houses over 10,444 different types of plant species including 1,200 orchid varieties, 678 fern species and 1,500 varieties of trees. As well as 255 species of mammals and 972 indigenous bird species, according to the National Society for the Protection of Nature, Panama.

The reason for such ecological abundance is the country's prime geographical position. Dividing the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean Sea, the country serves as a "biological corridor," connecting both North and Central America.

This, explains Javier Mateo-Vega, Director of the Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Yale University, makes Panama a "hub of biodiversity."

He told CNN: "The Isthmus of Panama and Central America arose over three million years ago through volcanic activity and has served as a bridge ever since -- allowing land and freshwater species to migrate from north to south and vice versa."

The most famous part of this "corridor" is the Darien Region.

Forming the easternmost part of Panama and boarding Colombia, the almost impenetrable wilderness of the Darien Region is perhaps most famous as a hiding ground for guerrillas, narcotics traffickers and paramilitary forces.

But despite the negative connotations, Mateo-Vega says this region is "one of the most biodiverse areas in the entire world."

Due to its remote location and lack of infrastructure, the area has remained a haven for countless species, home to jaguars, giant anteaters, harpy eagles and American crocodiles as well as sheltering various tribes of remote indigenous groups.

But it's a constant battle to keep developers at bay says Mateo-Vega.

He told CNN: "The region is definitely one of the most inaccessible areas of the country, but there is always talk about opening it up and constructing a road through it.

"What science and research has clearly indicated is that as soon as you cut a road through any forest it unfolds a chain of deforestation. Colonizers come in and extractive industries start to come in," he continued.

So far, no attempt as been made and the Panamanian government recently announced plans to keep the Darien Gap closed.

But not all areas remain safe.

Various mining companies have announced future drilling operations in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, while the authorities plan to build the "Gran Costanera," a new road along the Caribbean coast -- most of which is still forested.

And even though the rate of deforestation has decreased dramatically in the last ten years, the net loss is still significant.

As Mateo-Vega explained to CNN: "According to the most recent estimates from the Panamanian government, between 1992 and 2000 Panama was loosing approximately 41,000 hectares of forest per year.

He continued: "But between 2000 and 2008 they were loosing about 13,600 hectares per year. That's cut the rate by around two thirds, but still there was a considerable net lost of forest of around 451,000 hectares."

And despite attempts to curb deforestation by the government, environmental lobbyists and scientists are concerned by what they see as weakening environmental legislation.

It's an ongoing battle and not one that will be easily solved.

As Mateo-Vega told CNN: "Globally it is well recognized that environmental degradation can increase the vulnerability of a country and Panama is no exception to that."