Darién National Park and Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected area in Panama and a World Heritage Site containing an exceptional variety of habitats: sandy beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, and swamps, as well as lowland and upland tropical forests containing remarkable wildlife.
Darién National Park
Darién National Park extends some 575,000 ha (1,420,800 acres) in the Darién Province of southeastern Panama. The largest protected area in Panama, Darién National Park is a World Heritage Site and among Central America's most significant and valuable protected areas.
This National Park includes a stretch of the Pacific coast and almost the entire border with neighboring Colombia; this includes a shared border with Los Katios National Park, also a World Heritage Site.
From sea level to Cerro Tacarcuna at 1,875 m (6,150 ft) above sea level, the area boasts an exceptional variety of coastal, lowland, and mountain ecosystems and habitats.
There are sandy beaches, rocky shores, mangroves along the coast, countless wetlands, rivers and creeks, palm forests, and various types of rainforest, including the most extensive lowland rainforest on Central America's Pacific coast.
The property is also culturally and ethnically diverse, as evidenced by significant archaeological findings, as well as Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples of the Embera, Wounaan, Kuna, and others living within the property to this day. Darién National Park was groundbreaking by explicitly including a cultural dimension in managing and conserving a protected area.
The large size and remoteness across a broad spectrum of habitats favor the continuation of evolutionary processes in an area of both cultural significance and exceptional diversity of flora and fauna with a high degree of endemism in numerous taxonomic groups.
With future research likely to lead to further discoveries, hundreds of vertebrates and thousands of invertebrates have already been recorded.
Among the impressive 169 documented species of mammals are the critically endangered Brown-headed Spider Monkey, the endangered Central American Tapir, the vulnerable Giant Anteater, and near-threatened species like Jaguar, Bush Dog, and White-lipped Peccary.
The more than 530 recorded species of birds include the endangered Great Green Macaw, the vulnerable Great Curassow, and a significant population of the near-threatened Harpy Eagle.
Darién Biosphere Reserve
The Darién Biosphere Reserve is a unique site, forming the bridge between the two continents of the Western Hemisphere. The area comprises raised folds and high mountains with the most extensive lowland tropical forest on the Pacific coast in Central America.
The total surface area of the Biosphere Reserve is 859,333 ha (2,123,458 acres) and is divided as follows:
- Core area(s): 338,335 ha (836,044 acres)
- Buffer zone(s): 334,469 ha (826,491 acres)
- Transition zone(s): 186,529 ha (460,923 acres)
The Darién Biosphere Reserve contains many habitats: sandy beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, freshwater marshes, palm forest swamps, and lowland and upland moist tropical forests.
Scientists have characterized Darién forests as the most diverse ecosystems of tropical America and are still relatively undisturbed.
Major habitats and land cover types:
- lowland moist tropical forest, dominated by Persea schiedeana, Quercus copeyensis, Weinmannia pinnata, and Cedrela tonduzii
- premontane rainforest represented by Chrysophyllum sp., Quercus sp., Virola sp. etc.
- humid and very humid tropical forest characterized by Tabebuia chrysantha, Cecropia peltata, Anacardium excelsum, Luehea seemanni, Inga sp., etc.
- humid and very humid premontane forest, including species such as Hymenaea courbaril, Tabebuia chrysantha and Enterolobium cyclorarpum
- tropical dry forest, including Guazuma ulmifolia, Xylopia frutescens and Andira inermis
- mangroves characterized by Rhizophora mangle, Avicennia nitida, Laguncularia racemosa, and Pterocarpus officinalis
- residential areas
- grazing areas
The area is both anthropologically and historically rich, with two major indigenous groups: Chocos and Kunas, and several smaller groups still living by traditional practices.
These groups have maintained their subsistence agricultural systems through centuries of cultural contact. Over 31,400 inhabitants (2000) live in the buffer and transition areas. On the park's western boundary, there are several small farming plots.
Darién is the only incomplete section of the Pan-American Highway. Completing the highway would open up the area to settlement. It may lead to uncontrolled forestry, mining, agriculture, and hunting resulting in deforestation, soil erosion, disruption of the fragile ecological equilibrium and dislocation of the traditional practices of the indigenous inhabitants.
The main goal of the Biosphere Reserve is to maintain the indigenous culture and traditional practices and to promote Darién's regional biological diversity conservation.