The Atlantic Forest
The Atlantic Forest (also referred to as Mata Atlântica) is one of the earth's most endangered and biologically richest ecological systems. Originally, the Atlantic Forest covered eastern Paraguay, northeastern Argentina and the area along the Atlantic coast from south to northeastern Brazil. Of the almost 2 million km², which it once covered, today, it is only approximately 7 % of its original size because of massive clearing. The forest is now sparse and mainly consists of scattered forest islands. These forests form important ecological niches for birds, mammals, reptiles, butterflies and plants. Approximately 8,500 of these animal and plant species are endemic, i.e. they are native to the ecological conditions of the Atlantic Forest and only exist in this region. Extinction threatens many of the animal and plant species. The Atlantic Forest is considered to be one of the earth’s 25 most important "Hotspots".
The Eco-Region of the Reserve
The Atlantic Forest can be divided into several eco-regions, according to geomorphic characteristics and climate conditions of the respective areas. The largest of these regions are the forests of southwestern Brazil, northeastern Argentina and east Paraguay, which cover the river basins of the Paraná and Paraíba rivers and are known as the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest.
According to WWF, the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest is one of the 200 most important biological regions on earth, with its rich plant and animal life. The largest and most impressive mammals of South America are native to this virgin forest: jaguar, puma, ocelot, tapir and capybara, to mention just a few. In addition, 300 bird species are native to this region as well as many more animal species. The rich flora, the many tree species, ferns and rare orchids characterize this valuable eco-system.
The Nature Reserve
The San Rafael Nature Reserve is located in the Departements Itapúa and Caazapá in "Cordillera San Rafael", a mountain range in southeastern Paraguay, with elevations of up to 500 m. The reserve covers an area of 73,000 hectares (730 km²). It is the largest contiguous native Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest in Paraguay.
San Rafael is habitat for numerous exceptional animal and plant species. It is also home to the communities of the Mbya-Indians, the indigenous inhabitants of Paraguay. Some Mbya-Indian communities are still living unchanged according to their traditions. In 1992 the region was officially declared a sanctuary by the government, however the financial funds were lacking, to purchase the land from private proprietors to create a national park. As such, some owners, in spite of the official ban, are still interested in the forestry use of their lands.
The Threat to San Rafael
The existence of San Rafael is mainly put at risk due to logging, poaching and clearing to gain farmland and grasslands. Slashing-and-burning outside the area of San Rafael often burn out of control and spread to the sanctuary. Improper farming, in which the soil is depleted in a short period to the point that farming is no longer profitable, increases the pressure on forests in general. San Rafael is one the last major woodlands in the area, and as such particularly at risk of being endangered.