Colombia declared it is expanding the Serrania del Chiribiquete national park by some 1.5 million hectares - the same size as Northern Ireland - making it the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park.
Following decades of efforts by conservationists and environmental ministries, the park - home to around 3,000 animal and plant species, the move expanded the park by half its current size, to encompass over 42.2 million hectares.
The reserve is one of the world’s biodiversity ‘hotspots’ and is home to rare species such as jaguars, manatees, and vulnerable brown woolly monkeys, according to the Independent. Scientists have also previously found traces of 600,000 petroglyphs and pictographs painted on caves, some of which may be around 20,000 years old, within the park.
"Chiribiquete is a unique treasure — for Colombia, for the broader Amazon basin, and for the world," said Paulina Arroyo, the Andes-Amazon Initiative program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which played a part in the expansion of the park.
"With its record rates of plant and animal species diversity and proximity to indigenous territories, the park plays a critical role in the surrounding landscape mosaic, safeguarding the long-term ecological integrity, climatic function, and resilience of the Amazon," added Arroyo.
As the park increased in size, it was also named a Unesco world heritage site for its "outstanding universal value." President Manuel Santos said the recognition by Unesco was "great news for Colombia."
Located in southwest Colombia close to the Peruvian border, the park’s topography and biodiversity are unique in Latin America and the world because it runs across four distinct geographic regions – the Amazon, high Andes, lush Orinoco flatlands and the Guyanas ecosystem characterized by low mountains and treeless savannas.
Vegetation-covered, table-top mesas, or tepuys, and thick primary rainforests also distinguish the park’s ecology.
Armed conflict in the region and Chiribiquete’s remote location have the limited scientific study of the park, but its managers think it contains at least 300 varieties of birds and another 300 species of butterflies - many of which are probably endemic to the area.
"This is a very important milestone for the Amazon and for forest conservation globally. It is also a defining moment for the protection of key ecosystems in Colombia," said Mary Lou Higgins, director of WWF Colombia.
"Chiribiquete is very special for its biological, cultural, hydrological and archaeological value, holding rock art and visual records of extraordinary magnitude. It is also of vital importance to indigenous groups, some of whom remain uncontacted today, or live in voluntary isolation," Higgins added.
First named a protected area in 1989 the park at that time covered 1.3 million hectares. It was expanded to almost 2.8 million hectares in 2013.