The Llanos, located in the Orinoco River Basin that runs between Colombia and Venezuela, are some of the world’s richest tropical grasslands. This rugged “cowboy country” is teeming with wildlife, harboring more than 100 species of mammals and over 700 species of birds, approximately the same number of birds found in the entire United States. The mighty Orinoco River, which boasts the third largest river flow on Earth, cuts through the heart of the Llanos landscape. The Orinoco flows through a diverse landscape of dry forests, grasslands, and seasonally flooded plains before it disperses into a river delta of swamp forests and coastal mangroves as it approaches the Atlantic.
The Llanos stretch between Colombia and Venezuela in northern South America. They extend in a northeast direction, from the foothills of the Colombian Andean Mountains and extending along the course of the Orinoco River nearly to its delta in the Atlantic Ocean. The Llanos are limited by the Andes in the west, the Venezuelan Coastal Range in the north and the Amazon in the south.
The Llanos harbors one of the most critically endangered reptiles on Earth, the endemic Orinoco crocodile that reaches 23 feet length. Some scientists estimate that this species has only about 1,800 individuals remaining in the wild. Other endangered species in Llanos include the Orinoco turtle, giant armadillo, giant otter, black-and-chestnut eagle and several species of catfish.
In the wet and flooded savannas lives the largest rodent in the world, the capybara. Also present is the anaconda, the largest existing boa on the world, which is over 23 feet long.
The wetlands found in this region are among the most important areas for neotropical migratory birds and in particular, shorebirds like yellowlegs and several species of sandpipers. In fact, at least 62 of the bird species reported for Orinoco region are Neotropical migrants—representing almost 40% of the migratory species present in Colombia and Venezuela.
The grasslands are visited by species such as the dickcissel which is considered an endangered species. Other wintering visitors to Llanos include the swallow-tailed kite and the broad-winged hawk.
Until recently, the Llanos have been largely shielded from human pressures. However, this treasure of biological diversity is rapidly becoming a cache of riches in terms of natural resources for the economies of Colombia and Venezuela. The region is being affected by expansive cattle production and commercial agricultural (e.g. oil palm and rice), draining of wetlands, and fragmentation of natural ecosystems. Oil exploration and extraction and alteration of hydrologic processes from the construction of dikes and waterways further reduces and fragments natural ecosystems and ecological processes needed for the long-term maintenance of regional biodiversity.
In addition to habitat loss, several additional direct and indirect threats from current production systems and practices negatively affect species in the Llanos. Agrotoxins used to control pests may inadvertently poison birds feeding in the area. Even more significant are measures taken to reduce agricultural losses caused by dickcissels wintering in the llanos. Setting fire to roosting sites and poisoning have also become common practices in the region, affecting not only the target species but other species using the same agricultural ecosystems.
The Llanos have been traditionally underrepresented in the Colombian protected areas system. The Conservancy has joined with the Colombian National Natural Parks Agency and WWF Colombia to support the declaration of a new 63,000-acre protected area in the province of Casanare in northeastern Colombia. The area features flooded grasslands covered by gallery forests, and it would be the first time flooded grasslands are officially protected in Colombia. The Conservancy is also working with its partners to develop financial and management tools ensure the long-term protection of the protected area.
The Conservancy is working with its partners to increase private lands and public conservation coverage by creating new private reserves in critical areas, designing and implementing management plans for species (including habitat restoration plans), and engaging local communities living near the reserves in conservation actions aimed at protecting Llanos species and their habitats.
Finally, the Conservancy, WWF-Colombia and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service are working on a project with a bi-national perspective to ensure the long-term survival of bird populations and hemispheric migration patterns. This conservation strategy combines habitat protection, land management, and policy development. The project promotes mechanisms and processes that ensure the maintenance of critical habitats and migratory movements of birds throughout the Orinoco River Basin.