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Photo Essay: Paraguay’s last remnant of intact Atlantic Forest

  • In Paraguay, just 13 percent of the original Atlantic Forest cover still remains, and what is left is highly fragmented.
  • The one exception is the San Rafael Reserve, 730 square kilometers (281 square miles) of mostly intact Atlantic Forest.
  • Despite its official protected status, Sanchez says the San Rafael Reserve is threatened by logging, poaching and forest clearance for agriculture.

Freelance photojournalist Matthew Sanchez recalls a confrontation between police and rangers with non-profit conservation group Pro Cosara that occurred on his last night staying near the San Rafael Reserve in Paraguay.

“The rangers found, if I remember correctly, a cart or wagon that was loaded with illegally-harvested timber,” Sanchez told Mongabay. “The police, I’m not sure if the rangers called them or what, told the rangers it was better for them, the rangers, to back off and leave.”

When he heard this story, Sanchez was staying at the private reserve of Pro Cosara founders Hans and Christine Hostettler, which lies adjacent to the San Rafael Reserve and is a haven for endangered wildlife that was once found throughout the Atlantic Forest of Paraguay.

The private reserve, Sanchez told Mongabay, serves as something of a model for what Pro Cosara hopes to achieve through its conservation efforts in the San Rafael Reserve, established in 1992 by the Paraguayan government.

Booming global demand for soy has led to large areas of Atlantic Forest being converted to “endless and monotonous stretches of farmland,” Sanchez wrote in a blog post.

San Rafael Nature Reserve acts as a forest island in a sea of cleared land. However, while the reserve has offered relative protection from activities affecting the region around it, forest loss is still happening inside its bounds. According to Global Forest Watch, San Rafael Nature Reserve lost more than 1,500 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2014 – amounting to around 3 percent of its total forest extent. Of that, 1,000 hectares have been lost since 2010.

The Atlantic Forests of South America stretch from northeastern Brazil down along the along the Atlantic coast and inland as far as northern Argentina and eastern Paraguay. They provide habitat to as many as 8,500 species found nowhere else on earth, and are said to be second in terms of biodiversity only to the Amazon.

Brazil alone was once home to more than 1,000,000 square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of Atlantic Forest, but the World Wildlife Fund estimates that just 7 percent now remains. In Paraguay, just 13 percent of the original Atlantic Forest cover still stands, and what is left is highly fragmented.

“The one exception is found in the San Rafael Reserve,” Sanchez wrote. “The reserve covers 730 square kilometers (281 square miles) in the southeastern provinces of Itapúa and Caazapá. The unique type of forest found here is known as Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest.”

Despite its official protected status, Sanchez adds, the San Rafael Reserve is threatened by logging, poaching and forest clearance for agriculture.

That’s why Pro Cosara rangers regularly patrol the forest looking for illegal loggers and poachers — who are often sport hunters looking for a thrill, not subsistence hunters violating the reserve’s protected status to feed their families. That’s why the group also works with local communities to promote greater awareness of the need for conservation of the last remaining intact Atlantic Forest in Paraguay and the incredible biodiversity it harbors.

But progress is “painfully slow,” Sanchez writes.

“Proper education is lacking in local communities. Poverty in Paraguay remains high. As a result, many people struggle simply making it from one day to the next. The temptation of utilizing whatever resources a dwindling forest can provide is often too great for many. Such has been the case with logging and forest clearance for small-scale farming. Corrupt and indifferent authorities have only worsened the situation.”

Sanchez took a series of photos during his time in Paraguay to help raise awareness of the plight of the San Rafael Reserve.

“I loved just walking through the forest alone photographing the insects, the trees, the plants, the small birds,” Sanchez told Mongabay. “It was peaceful and therapeutic.”

Morning at la laguna in the private reserve of Hans and Christine Hostettler. The Hostettler reserve lies next to the San Rafael Reserve and is a model for what the Swiss activists hope to achieve for San Rafael.
Open canopy in Atlantic Forest in Paraguay.
Sunrise at la laguna in the private reserve of Hans and Christine Hostettler in Paraguay. The reserve lies next to the San Rafael Reserve which is one of the last viable stretches of Atlantic Forest in the country.
An unidentified species of spider doing its thing in an Atlantic Forest in Paraguay.
Life in the Atlantic Forest in Paraguay.
A wheat field stands where Atlantic Forest once stood. Agriculture — both large scale agribusiness and small scale slash-and-burn agriculture — lie at the heart of the destruction of Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest.
Juan Viera, son-in-law of Hans Hostettler, patrols the forest near his home for poachers after hearing the sound of barking dogs (poachers usually use dogs on hunts) in the forest.
Though not as severe as in Paraguay’s Chaco region, cattle ranching has played a hand in the destruction of Atlantic Forest.
Flowering plants in Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest.
Fungi in a section of Atlantic Forest of Paraguay.
Much of Eastern Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest has given way to this: endless fields of soy, wheat and other cash crops.
A section of Atlantic Forest in the San Rafael Reserve in Paraguay.
Hans Hostettler returns from a routine flight over the San Rafael Reserve in Paraguay. He checks for signs of deforestation while flying over the forest. He returns with bad news of signs of logging in the forest.
An eared pygmy tyrant in the San Rafael Reserve of Paraguay. This species is native to Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Its preferred habitat is tropical and sub-tropical forest.
Trail through Atlantic Forest in Southeastern Paraguay. The forest here experiences more distinct seasons than the true tropical rainforests further north in the Amazon Basin. Sanchez visited the San Rafael Reserve of Paraguay in the Austral winter and experienced several days of rather chilly weather. He even needed a warm coat for several excursions into the forest — something unimaginable for him based on his experiences in the Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon.
After the storm. Atlantic Forest, Paraguay.
Unidentified species of tree in a section of Atlantic Forest in Southeastern Paraguay.
Handroanthus heptaphyllus, or more commonly known as black lapacho, towers over a section of Atlantic Forest in Paraguay. The national tree of Paraguay, it grows in the watershed area of the Paraná, Paraguay and Uruguay Rivers in South America. It’s truly a spectacular sight in full bloom.
Oospila ecuadorata in the Atlantic Forest of Paraguay.

All photos by Matthew Sanchez.