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The Amazon Under Fire

The Amazon rain forest is a place unlike anywhere else on Earth. It features beetles that are as large as teacups, hairy spiders with seven-inch legs, and frogs that are too poisonous for humans to touch. It is an exotic region where trees tower skyward and one type of fish actually eats fruit.

At nearly two million square miles, the Amazon rain forest is located in parts of nine South American countries. It was once an unspoiled region of dense jungle far from civilization. Various American Indian groups were the only humans who lived there.

Today, the rain forest is threatened. For several decades, vast areas of the forest have been chopped down to make room for farms. Despite recent efforts to protect the area, loggers and farmers are still destroying large sections of the exotic forest.

Shrinking Rain Forest

In Brazil, where the largest area of the rain forest is located, the sky is often thick with smoke. Rangers illegally set fire to acres of lush jungle to create pastures for livestock.

Landowners are setting the Amazon rain forest on fire at a rate of more than 6,000 square miles per year. That is an area slightly larger than the size of Connecticut. Biologists estimate that about 15 percent of Brazil's rain forest has been destroyed over the past 30 years.

Loggers have a plan to pave a 1,100-mile road through the middle of the rain forest. If the road is built, it would allow farmers to transport their products easily to the Amazon River. Environmentalists fear the road would cause more harm to the rain forest by destroying the animals' homes, as well as destroying vast areas of rare plants.

Scientists at the National Institute of Amazon Research say the raging fires release an estimated 400 million tons of harmful gases into the atmosphere each year, poisoning the surrounding countryside.

Satellite images of the region show large blazes throughout the Amazon region except in areas protected by American Indian groups.

The Jungle's Importance

There are many reasons that it is important to protect the rain forest. For example, one-quarter of all medicines come from rain forest plants. More than 1,400 varieties of plants are thought to be potential cures for cancer. Moreover, plants in the rain forests supply 40 percent of the world's oxygen.

A tropical rain forest is the Earth's most diverse ecosystem. In the Amazon, more than 1,600 species of birds share the jungle with about 1,200 species of butterflies and more than a million species of insects.

The Amazon rain forest is huge, covering an area three times the size of Alaska. Many odd creatures live there, including the red-faced uakari monkey and the four-foot-long capybara, the world's largest rodent.

Pink freshwater dolphins and a fruit-eating fish called the tambaqui swim in the rivers and streams of the jungle. The Amazon is packed with animals that can't be found anywhere else on the planet. Biologists say the survival of these creatures depends on the health of the rain forest.

Making Slow Progress

Some countries are trying to slow the rate of forest destruction. In one part of the region, ranchers and farmers who clear more than 20 percent of their land face heavy fines or jail sentences. It is difficult, however, to force people to follow the laws.

In northern Brazil, the government recently turned 9.6 million acres of forest into the world's largest tropical national park. In other parts of the Amazon rain forest, however, the fires continue to burn.

As scientists learn more about the importance of rain forests, people around the world are beginning to work together to save this vital resource. Meanwhile, rare plant and animal species face an uncertain future.