Exploring Bolivia's Biodiversity

Part of Curriculum Collections.

Bolivia's diversity of animal and plant life is among the greatest in the world.

The country's location in the tropics combined with dramatic variations in topography and climate result in a wide range of ecosystems—from the spectacular mountain landscapes of the Andes to the dense rainforests of the Amazon to the unusual dry forests of the Chaco. Bolivia has designated more than 17 percent of its land as protected areas. 

More than half of Bolivia's 8.7 million people are indigenous—descendants of those who lived there long before Spanish explorers arrived. The dozens of ethnic groups in Bolivia have adapted to the country's diverse landscapes and natural resources, and many continue traditions of weaving textiles and building homes from natural materials. While poverty in rural areas has fueled an ongoing migration to cities, many Bolivians still live a rural life, farming or raising livestock. Bolivians also play a key role in protecting biodiversity—more than 1.5 million live in or near the country's protected areas.

Lagoon with trees on land next to water
The Mancornadas Lagoons Bolivia is best known for its mountains, but nearly two-thirds of the country consists of lowland forests, wetlands and grasslands.
Desert environment with mountains in the background
South Lípez Desert The Bolivian Altiplano, which means "high plain," lies between the parallel mountain ranges of the Andes. At more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level, the Altiplano can be literally breathtaking.


Snowmelt flowing down the eastern slopes of the Andes combines to form several of the major rivers of the Amazon basin. The high valleys where these rivers begin harbor startling numbers of unique bird and plant species. The biodiversity of these valleys is severely threatened by the expansion of agriculture, ranching, erosion, mining and damming of rivers for hydroelectric power. Conservationists working in Bolivia, including members of the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, are searching for development alternatives that will help to conserve both biological and cultural diversity.

Snow-capped mountain
Shrinking Glaciers Glaciers on tropical mountains around the world, such as this glacier on the volcano Sajama, have been shrinking rapidly in recent decades. Just outside the capital city of La Paz, two glaciers—Zongo and Chacaltaya—supply most of the drinking water for the city's one million residents, and power its two hydroelectric plants. In the 1990s these glaciers shrank 10 times as fast as they had in previous decades. Scientists say the rapid melting of many of the world's glaciers is a symptom of global climate change.
Wetland environment
Pantanal Ranch House Along the edges of the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, cattle ranchers build homes and keep their herds on patches of high ground. As water recedes during the dry months, ranchers move their cattle into areas of fresh grass. Ranching and agriculture compete with the multitude of Pantanal species, including hundreds of thousands of aquatic birds, many of them shorebirds that migrate between North and South America. Also living in the region are some 80 species of mammals, including many of conservation concern, such as the jaguar, marsh deer, giant otter and giant anteater.
Forest environment with waterfall
Catarata El Encanto Catarata El Encanto, which means the enchanted waterfall, plunges over the edge of the Huanchaca Plateau, a massive sandstone bluff in eastern Bolivia. This stream ultimately feeds into the Amazon, the largest drainage system in the world. Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, where this waterfall is located, preserves habitats ranging from dry savannahs and woodlands on the plateau to wet tropical forests below. More than 240 species of fish live in the park, many of them found nowhere else.
A river valley from above.
San Juan del Oro River Valley Farmers along the San Juan del Oro River use its waters to irrigate an amazing variety of crops, from corn and tomatoes to figs and other fruits. Many people also raise goats, sheep and pigs, which they move up and down the valley seasonally. This river valley and others nearby were inhabited long before the arrival of the Spanish, and today little remains of the original vegetation. Although productive, the land is in a delicate balance, vulnerable to nutrient depletion from intensive cultivation, and susceptible to erosion partially caused by overgrazing.
A man standing in and rowing a boat on a river.
Lake Titicaca Lake Titicaca, South America's largest freshwater lake, strongly influences the climate and cultures nearby. At 3,810 meters (12,500 feet) above sea level, Titicaca's waters ward off freezing temperatures, which benefits local farmers. Many indigenous peoples have viewed the lake as sacred—the Inka believed that human life originated here. Today a few people still make traditional boats from totorareeds, which grow along the shores. More than 60 species of birds are found at the lake, and more than 80 percent of the lake's fish species live only in Lake Titicaca.


Beautiful handwoven textiles have been a tradition in Bolivia for centuries. These intricate weavings serve as clothing, as carriers for babies and other valuables, as important parts of ceremonies and as products for sale. Most communities have their own distinctive designs and techniques that have been passed along for countless generations. Weavers in the lowlands weave cotton textiles and baskets from grasses and palm fronds, while those in the Andes use wool from alpacas, vicuñas and sheep. Alpacas and vicuñas have finer wool and cause less damage to the soil than sheep, which destroy grasses by uprooting them as they graze.

A group of vicuña in the wild.
Vicuñas The wool of the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), a wild relative of the alpaca, is among the finest in the world, with fibers lighter than cashmere. Voracious global demand for this wool nearly led to the vicuña's extinction in the 1970s, when only small herds remained. Fewer than 100 vicuñas lived in the Apolobamba region of the Bolivian Andes 30 years ago, when a protected area was established. Today this population has grown to more than 10,000 animals, and community-based capture and shearing programs are an important part of its management.
Two women weaving outside.
Andean Weaver Among the indigenous peoples of the Andes, women do most of the weaving, and like this Aymara woman they often work outdoors. Although many of the fundamental designs and color combinations have persisted for centuries, today’s weavers frequently use synthetic dyes instead of the natural dying processes invented by their ancestors. In some communities, weavers have united to form cooperatives that help them maintain their traditions and market their products regionally and internationally.
Guaraya weaver working on a hammock, in Urubichá, Bolivia
Hammock Weaving Hammocks, woven throughout Central and South America for hundreds of years, serve as cool beds in hot climates. They can be transported easily and are helpful for avoiding insects and moisture when sleeping in the forest. Once woven from palm fibers, hammocks are now usually woven from cotton or other natural fibers. This Guaraya weaver lives in Urubichá, an eastern lowlands community where hammock weaving is the principal economic activity.
Bolivian villagers in bright woven shawls and ponchos walking through village
Woven Shawls in Curva Residents of the Curva region in the Andes depart for a ceremony. The women wear shawls, while the man (right) wears a poncho. As in many indigenous communities, weavers here create traditional textiles for their own use and to market to visitors. The American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation is working with communities in Curva to develop small museums that demonstrate, through weavings and other artifacts, the importance of natural resources to indigenous people and to the region's rich biodiversity.


To construct their homes, many Bolivians use processed materials, such as concrete, metal and fiberglass, and urban architecture runs the gamut from Spanish Colonial cathedrals to modern skyscrapers. But many people in rural areas still build homes using more traditional methods and natural materials, such as palm fronds, sod, grasses, stone and wood. While these homes are inexpensive and well-suited to the local climate, they can take more time to build and maintain.

Aerial view of La Paz, Bolivia's capital, nestled in the mountains.
La Paz At more than twice the elevation of Denver, Colorado, La Paz is the world's highest capital city. Bolivia's major cities, La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, are growing rapidly as people migrate from rural areas in search of jobs. Yet many new residents have little formal education and find themselves living in poor neighborhoods and working at low-paying jobs. The poor typically live on the hillsides in La Paz or in the neighboring plateau city of El Alto. During severe rainstorms, landslides often destroy makeshift houses on the hillsides.
A line of traditional rounded homes of the Chipaya people, Bolivia.
Homes of the Chipaya On this nearly barren, windswept salt flat in southwestern Bolivia, the traditional rounded homes of the Chipaya people provide more effective shelter than rectangular structures. To build these homes the Chipaya cut bricks of sod from the shores of the salty marshlands. Survival on the salt flats has always been a challenge—quinoa farmers must regularly flood their fields to dilute the salty soil. Chipaya populations have declined in recent decades as younger people leave in search of economic opportunities, such as jobs in copper mines nearby in Chile.
Palm frond roofed houses below towering palm trees.
Roofs that Grow on Trees Palm fronds make a lightweight and remarkably waterproof roofing material for houses like these in eastern Bolivia. The thatched roofs, which last between five and eight years, also allow fresh air into the house and smoke from cooking fires to escape. Roofs like these, widely used in the lowlands and foothills, are made frommotacú palm (Attalea phalerata)—the only tree in which the endangered blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis) likes to nest. Harvesting palm fronds does not require cutting down trees.

Food & Farming

Nearly half of Bolivians are farmers, and the country’s variety of elevations and climates support a great diversity of crops and farming practices. The majority of Bolivia’s farmers practice subsistence agriculture in the cold, dry Andean mountains, using terracing and other techniques to improve yields in this harsh environment. Yet the greatest crop production comes from valley and lowland farms where the climate is warmer and usually wetter. The fertile valleys on the eastern Andean slopes produce most of the fruits and vegetables eaten in Bolivia. Lowland farms produce cash crops for export, such as soybeans, cotton and rice.

Three people with fishing nets standing in shallow water along a river.
Communal Fishing Every year before the dry season, Guaraní indigenous people come to the Parapetí River to catch the fish that migrate by the thousands to their spawning grounds. The river, which runs through the dry Chaco forest and drains into a large wetland, sustains a great variety of wildlife, including jaguars, peccaries and several species of armadillos. The Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park—the largest protected area in South America—was established in 1995 to help protect this region. The park is managed by a Guaraní organization, which strives to balance conservation goals with the needs of indigenous groups in the region.
A market with many bags of different kinds of potatoes
Potatoes Potatoes originated in the Andes, and thousands of years of cultivation have yielded more than 4,000 varieties with a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes. Potatoes form the foundation of almost every meal in the rural Andes. A typical farmer grows more than a dozen types, each with a specific purpose, such as boiling, frying or freeze-drying—a process Andean peoples developed centuries ago. This wide variety not only pleases the palate, it allows farmers to select varieties that thrive in different climates or environments, or that can resist diseases or pests.
A quinoa farmer
Quinoa Cultivated for more than 5,000 years, the tiny, ivory-colored seeds of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) are rich in protein and adapted to growth in the cold, dry Altiplano climate. Each flower cluster holds enough seeds to plant a quarter of an acre. Sacred to the Inkas, quinoa became less popular after Spanish conquest, when its cultivation was prohibited. Today it is again a staple of Andean diets, as well as a growing export to North America where chefs have discovered its many nutrients—calcium, iron and the essential amino acid lysine.
Terraced fields
Terraced Fields Practiced in the Andes for more than 2,000 years, terraced farming techniques are being revitalized in many mountainous areas of Bolivia to help farmers feed their families and earn a living. Terraced fields enable crops to grow in spite of the steep slopes, poor soil and cold, dry climate of the high Andes. Terraces cut into the slopes reduce the impact of severe frost and minimize erosion, both of which can make this region difficult to farm.
An intact coconut-shaped pod, and a pod cracked in half to show Brazil nuts in their shells inside the pod.
Brazil Nuts In Amazonian forests of northwest Bolivia, Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa) are the leading economic resource. Ten years ago most Brazil nuts came from Brazil, but government incentives have helped make Bolivia the world's number one producer. Brazil nut trees cannot be cultivated. Instead, nut collectors gather the heavy, coconut-shaped pods in the forest. The workers carry the pods, each one containing one to two dozen Brazil nuts, to collection points where they are hulled and shipped to market.

Traditional Ceremonies

The majority of Bolivians, and especially those in rural communities, identify themselves as indigenous people. In the Andes, most indigenous groups are descended from the Quechua-speaking Inka or from the Aymara speakers of the southern Andes. The Amazonian forest in eastern Bolivia is home to dozens of small, historically isolated communities of indigenous people. 

Though most Bolivians are Roman Catholic—a legacy of the Spanish colonial era—many integrate Christianity with indigenous beliefs. Some people celebrate both Christian holidays and indigenous ceremonies and rituals. A spiritual connection to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, also informs some of the indigenous healing practices that persist alongside more modern medical treatments.

A man chewing leaves of coca.
Offering to Tío Bolivian miners, such as this man in Oruro, regularly leave offerings of alcohol, tobacco and coca leaves on statues of the Tío, the god of the underworld, to ensure their safety and success in their work in the mines. Leaves of coca (Erithroxylum coca) are considered sacred, and for centuries Bolivian miners and farmers have chewed the leaves to boost energy, reduce hunger and counteract the effects of high altitudes. Throughout Bolivia's history, extraction of minerals such as gold, silver and tin has been a major force in the economy, but mining has also brought significant danger for workers, as well as water pollution and other environmental problems.
A performer wearing a large, colorful headdress.
Dance of the Macheteros Each year, dancers in the town of San Ignacio de Moxos, in the Beni lowlands of northern Bolivia, gather to perform the dance of the Macheteros—the machete wielders. Wearing enormous headdresses made from the tail feathers of macaws, the performers in this folkloric dance all carry large machetes. Bird bone flutes and large drums called bombos provide the musical accompaniment.
A Kallawaya in a grassy field with mountains in the background.
Kallawayas Since before the Inkan empire, itinerant healers of the Andes known as Kallawayas have traveled throughout South America collecting plants and learning about their medicinal properties. They use some 1,000 different plant species, as well as minerals and animal parts, to treat a wide variety of ailments. Kallawayas generally believe that Pachamama, or Mother Earth, both provides healing herbs and minerals and chooses the Kallawayas to deliver these treatments. In return, Kallawayas make offerings at sacred places, such as mountains, lakes, rivers and waterfalls, to ensure the health and prosperity of local communities.


The diverse landscapes and climates of Bolivia range from high plateaus and snow-capped mountains as tall as 6,500 meters (21,500 feet) to low-lying wetlands and forests. These numerous habitats help make Bolivia one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Particularly notable is the diversity of birds—more than 1,400 species ranging from the macaws of the rainforest to the Andean condor. 

Yet for all this diversity, biologists did relatively little research here until the 1980s; and much of Bolivia’s biodiversity remains unexplored. Researchers from the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation have helped to catalog and count the species in protected areas within the Amboró-Madidi corridor in the Bolivian Andes—an area both rich in species and vulnerable to threats.

Chiquitano Orchid (Encyclia steinbachii), found only in Bolivia
Chiquitano Orchid This orchid species (Encyclia steinbachii) is found only in the dry Chiquitano forest of eastern Bolivia. The orchid family is the most diverse plant family in Bolivia with estimates of up to 2,000 species, more than 25 percent of them unique to Bolivia. In recent years, researchers have increased their surveys in Bolivia, resulting in a wealth of newly discovered orchid species. Yet as much as half of Bolivia remains unexplored by botanists.
An Andean cat sitting on a rock.
Andean Cat Although scientists suspect that the Andean cat (Oreailurus jacobita) is a threatened species, they have only begun to study its distribution and biology. In 2004, researchers for the first time placed a radio-transmitting collar on one of these animals to track its movements. Some people who live in the high Andes, where the Andean cat is found, believe that killing one brings bad luck. Yet a cat skin, if found or inherited, is considered a prized possession, and stuffed cats are used in traditional ceremonies.
An Andean butterfly perched on a rock.
Amazonian Butterfly This Amazonian butterfly species (Dynamine setabis) is common in the wet forests of eastern Bolivia. Researchers have identified more than 3,000 species of butterflies in Bolivia—the fourth most in any country. Butterflies and other invertebrates make up the vast majority of Bolivia's biological richness and provide critical ecosystem services such as pollination, nutrient recycling and decomposition.
A guanaco in a desert environment.
Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) Like its domesticated relative the llama (Lama glama), guanacos (Lama guanicoe) are adapted to harsh environments. Although guanacos are found from southern Peru to Argentina, they have nearly disappeared from Bolivia, with roughly 100 animals remaining in the scrubby savannahs of the Chaco region. Guanacos were once hunted extensively for their thick, soft fur. Today guanaco hunting is prohibited; however, guanacos must compete with cattle and sheep for grazing land.
Two blue and yellow macaws perched on a tree branch.
Blue-and-Yellow Macaw The vibrantly colored blue-and-yellow macaw (Ara ararauna) lives throughout most of the Amazon basin and eats the sweet flesh of the fruit from palm trees. While blue-and-yellow macaws are relatively common in Bolivia, the blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis) has become critically endangered due to intense poaching by hunters who then sell the birds to the pet trade. Today, fewer than 100 of these birds remain in the world, living on forest "islands" in the grasslands of Bolivia's Beni region.
Giant cacti on a hillside.
Cacti at Uyuni Salt Flats The giant cactus (Echinopsis atacamensis pasacana) populates many of the small "islands" that dot the Uyuni Salt Flats in southwestern Bolivia. These salt flats—remains of an ancient sea—are the largest in the world, covering an area almost the size of Connecticut. They hold some 10 billion tons of salt, 25,000 tons of which is extracted annually for sale. The giant cactus can grow to 10 meters (33 feet) tall, and local Chipaya people use its woody skeleton to construct homes and furniture. Of the more than 250 species of cacti in Bolivia, 70 percent exist nowhere else in the world.


Although vast areas of Bolivia remain undisturbed, a continuing commitment to conservation measures is essential to protecting the country’s rich biodiversity. Sustainable use of natural resources and management of national parks and protected areas become increasingly important as the population increases and strives for economic advancement.

Many people live within the boundaries of Bolivia’s protected areas, and the government is trying to balance the importance of ecological protection with the needs of the people. Researchers at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation have contributed to management efforts by surveying the biodiversity in protected areas, and by supporting community-based conservation projects, including the creation of community museums that interpret biological and cultural heritage for visitors.

A Bolivian logger stands on a large stack of hardwood boards at a construction site.
Hardwood Harvest Bolivia was once a leading exporter of mahogany, cedar and other hardwoods to North America and Europe. However, overharvesting of these slow-growing hardwoods led the Bolivian government to pass legislation to control their harvest, requiring logging companies to establish forest inventories, management plans and annual harvesting quotas. Forestry programs also emphasize the harvest of alternative species and of non-timber forest products, such as Brazil nuts. These strategies are important for protecting Bolivia's forests, which cover nearly 40 percent of the country.
Two flamingos standing in shallow water.
Flamingos Thousands of flamingos congregate in the lakes and lagoons of Eduardo Avaroa Reserve on the high Andean plateau. The James' flamingo (Phoenicopterus jamesi), pictured here, is one of three species that have adapted to this cold, extremely salty environment. The briny waters are teeming with microscopic plants and animals, which the flamingos eat by filtering water through densely packed rows of "teeth" in their bills. Despite its remote location, this park has become the most popular wildlife reserve in Bolivia. Officials are struggling to balance the potential economic benefits of tourism with its impact on the environment.
A green frog perched on a leaf.
Singing Frog This frog (Sphaenorhynchus lacteus) is common throughout the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. During wet weather frogs sing to attract mates, and females lay their eggs in or near the water. Because frogs and other amphibians live in close contact with water and have permeable skin, they are among the first creatures to suffer when water becomes polluted or disappears.  Currently, over a third of the world's amphibians are threatened, and although many of them live in protected areas, threats often cross reserve boundaries.
A herd of cattle with ranchers along a road.
Cattle Drive in Chiquitos Cattle ranching is one of many threats to the fragile Chiquitano dry forest—an ecosystem between the wet Amazonian forests to the north and the drier, thorny scrub forests to the south. Although the Chiquitano is one of the largest and best-preserved dry forests in the world, it is among the most endangered ecosystems in South America. It is threatened by expansion of agriculture, damming, uncontrolled logging and the construction of roads and pipelines.

Exploring Bolivia's Biodiversity was developed in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), and Bolivian partners. The CBC promotes the conservation of biological diversity through science and education.

Willy Kenning is a self-taught photographer, a pilot and the author of eight books on Bolivia. His photographs of Bolivia have been widely published in newspapers and magazines, including National Geographic, and exhibited in Bolivia, Argentina and the United States. He lives in Santa Cruz.

Hermes Justiniano has worked for more than 15 years in Bolivia's protected areas as a conservationist and nature photographer. He lives in Santa Cruz, and is the founder of Friends of Nature in Bolivia and the director of the Chiquitano Forest Conservation Foundation.

Peter McFarren, a photographer, film producer and author of numerous books on Bolivia, is also founder and president of the Quipus Cultural Foundation, a non-governmental organization that promotes and preserves Bolivian culture. He lives in La Paz.

Other photographs courtesy of Steffen Reichle, Hal Noss, Jim Sanderson, Maximo Liberman Cruz and the Bolivian Viceministry of Tourism. This exhibition is made possible by the generosity of the Arthur Ross Foundation.