Venezuela's rugged Llanos are one of the world´s richest tropical grasslands. This mostly flat, grassy “cowboy country,” which is shared with Colombia, is teeming with wildlife, harboring more than 100 species of mammals and over 300 species of birds.
The mighty Orinoco River, which boasts the third largest river flow on Earth, cuts through the heart of the Llanos landscape. Its waters begin in Colombia’s eastern Amazon region and then swell as the river continues north-eastward across Venezuela to the Atlantic Ocean. 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.
These diverse landscapes provide habitats for a wide range of species, including the giant river otter, ocelot, puma, jaguar, giant anteater, capybara, river dolphin, boa constrictor, anaconda and Terecay turtle. The Llanos also lodge giant armadillos and Orinoco crocodiles, one of the most threatened reptiles in the world.
The Orinoco River Basin is home to more than 1,000 species of fish, including the big-headed catfish and several endangered species such as the three-star pavón and the cinchado pavón. A catfish called the lau-lau, which weighs up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) and is considered a culinary delicacy, is in severe decline.
Jabirus, American wood storks, turkey vultures, scarlet macaws, roseate spoonbills, egrets, kites and hawks are some of the larger bird species in the Llanos. The grasslands provide winter habitat for more than 130 species of neotropical migratory birds, including yellowlegs, spotted sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, dickcissels and bobolinks. In addition, huge flocks of the white-faced whistling-duck, the black-bellied whistling-duck and the fulvous whistling-duck are regular visitors of the flooded savannas.
The Llanos have huge plains covered with natural grass and esteros, which are forests that grow up along the shores of the rivers and form reservoirs of biodiversity. Its vast savannas are dotted with chaparrals, or thickets of twisted, fire-tolerant dwarf trees. Thin prairie palm, saman, carocaro and pardillo trees thrive in the lowlands, while moriche palms and coco de mono trees make up the gallery forests clinging to riverbanks. The fertile high plains of the Llanos provide prime growing conditions for deciduous trees such as mahogany, cedar and the araguaney, Venezuela’s national tree.
Why the Conservancy Works Here
The Llanos of Venezuela and Colombia are among the largest grasslands in South America. Main threats to the Llanos are extensive cattle ranching, agricultural expansion, logging, oil and gas exploration, and invasive grasses. Other impacts are less obvious but just as severe: The use of agrochemicals is leading to the decline of several species, including migratory songbirds from North America that winter in the Llanos.
What the Conservancy Is Doing
The Conservancy works with government entities and local communities and organizations to help protect Llanos biodiversity. This collaboration is done on both the local and national scale in Venezuela, as well as with partners in the Colombian Llanos. Projects include:
Ecoregional Planning: The Conservancy has signed an agreement for technical cooperation with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of Colombia, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute of Colombia, and FUDENA (Fundación para la Defensa de La Naturaleza) of Venezuela, in order to work at a bi-national level with local partners to identify important areas for protection, identify threats, and develop long-term conservation strategies in the Orinoco River Basin of both countries. Results of this work will be provided to local and national stakeholders in order to incorporate an environmental component in development plans.
Supporting Protected Areas: The Conservancy worked with INPARQUES, the national park system of Venezuela, in protecting large expanses of land in the Llanos, including one of the largest land donations in the Conservancy´s history — an 180,000-acre tract bordering Aguaro-Guariquito National Park, which the Conservancy passed on to the Venezuelan Park Service for inclusion in the park.
Working with Farmers and Ranchers: Important conservation areas are part of the agricultural and ranching expansion landscape. The Conservancy seeks to work with national partners to propose management plans that allow for conservation, as well as maintain or even increase the productivity of these lands.
Protecting Migratory Bird Habitats: The Conservancy and WWF-Colombia, along with FUDENA, the Private Reserves Network of Venezuela (Aprinatura) and the Private Natural Reserves Association of Colombia, are working bi-nationally across the Orinoco River Basin to protect the habitats of visiting migratory birds. This work, supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, identified important stopover sites and analyzed human impacts on ecosystems with the objectives of promoting private lands conservation, supporting the implementation of sustainable development policies, and strengthening working groups in the farming and ranching sectors.