Parque Nacional Yasuní encompasses just under 10,000 square kilometres of tropical rainforest around the basins of the ríos Tiputini, Yasuní, Nashiño and Curaray. The gap at the western end, in the shape of a giant horseshoe, was made into Reserva Waorani in 1990 for the 21 Waorani communities living here; it is effectively a 6000-square-kilometre buffer zone preventing colonization and oil exploitation from the west.
Yasuní is part of the “Napo Pleistocene refuge”, an area of rainforest thought to have survived the ravages of the ice age, allowing species here to thrive and diversify, generating scores of endemic species. It’s theorized that this long period of development is why the Amazon rainforest is much more biodiverse than its African and Asian counterparts, which the ice age affected. Yasuní claims almost sixty percent of Ecuador’s mammal species, including 81 species of bat, larger animals such as jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, twelve primate species and aquatic mammals including pink freshwater dolphins, manatee and giant otters. Over 520 bird species have been recorded, including harpy eagles and sunbitterns, and one recent botanical study found 473 tree species in only one hectare, which is thought to be a world record. Most of the park consists of forest on well-drained soil (tierra firme), but other life zones include seasonally flooded forest (várzea) and permanently flooded swamp forest (igapó). Scientists today believe they’ve only scratched the surface of identifying all life here.
UNESCO was quick to declare Yasuní an International Biosphere Reserve in 1979 – two months prior to the park’s official creation – to strengthen its protected status before oil companies could start prospecting. Despite this, the park is under attack from several of them and roads have already been built into protected areas. At Pompeya, barges ferry oil vehicles across the Río Napo to a gravel road, known as the Vía Maxus after the oil company that built it, which cuts right through the northern arm of the park for 150km. Entrance to the park here is monitored to allow access only to oil workers and members of the three small Waorani communities who live inside Yasuní, preventing settlers from colonizing the forest. Even so, environmentalists complain the road destroyed fifty saltpans, disturbed centres of animal activity and was built of contaminated waste materials. Nor is this the only concern: as many as five oil companies are operating inside the park, and the threat of new roads, waste dumping, destruction and contamination is never very far away. The damage hasn’t only been environmental; Waorani living in and around the reserve have persistently suffered from malicious interference, as some oil companies continue to exploit community divisions, bribe leaders, spoil hunting grounds and pollute water supplies.