Understanding Panama’s Soberanía National Park: A Biodiversity-Rich Forest with Urban Headaches

On a wide trail in Panama’s Soberanía National Park, Cornell University professor Peter Wrege is surrounded by 14 inquisitive reporters from nearby Panama City. The trail, called Pipeline Road, is widely known as one of the best birdwatching spots in the world. The Panama Audubon Society and the country’s natural resources administration, known as ANAM, have arranged the visit to the park so that reporters could better understand the urban pressures it faces, the wealth of diversity it protects, and its importance to the Panama Canal.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')In an impromptu, trailside ecology lecture, Wrege explains why Soberanía is so important to researchers, as well. He is working with students from Princeton University and the University of Panama to study the relationship of antbirds (Formicariidae) with army ants (Eciton spp.) About 28 species of antbirds routinely follow marching army ants when the aggressive insects go off on a raid. The birds post themselves near the advancing column and eat the insects that are fleeing the ants. Wrege and his students are trying to find out how antbirds affect the food supply of the ants.

In addition to antbirds, some 380 other species of birds have been spotted in Soberanía, along with more than 100 species of mammals, such as howler and capuchin monkeys (Aloutta spp. and Cebus spp.), agoutis (Dasyprocta spp.), and white-nosed coatis (Nasua narica). There are some 80 species of reptiles and 55 amphibian species. The ancient tropical forest holds some of the tallest trees in the world, including ceibas, which can reach 200 feet.

Aside from protecting flora and fauna and providing a laboratory for biologists, Soberanía is vital to the operation of the Panama Canal. Its 48,287 acres (19,541 hectares) drape the Panama Canal’s east bank. Each ship that passes through the canal uses 50 million gallons of freshwater, all of it provided by rainfall. Precipitation in Soberanía and other nearby forests – which comprise the canal’s watershed — fills rivers that empty into Lakes Gatún and Alajuela and in turn feed the locks. Without the trees to block erosion, the rivers would dump tons of soil into the canal and render it inoperable. Already, more than 70 percent of the canal watershed is deforested, so keeping Soberanía intact is a Panamanian priority.

Pressure on Soberanía is largely due to its location, just 30 minutes from Panama City. Three major highways cut across Soberanía’s edges, and there are dozens of communities just outside the reserve’s borders. ANAM agronomist Oreano Bosquez tells the journalists that trash dumping all along its eastern border is one of the park’s most serious problems, along with river contamination caused by a nearby quarry and pork processing plant. An invasive grass called “paja blanca” that grows in thick masses on the park’s outskirts poses a severe fire hazard. When farmers carelessly burn their fields to clear them, sparks easily ignite the grasses and flames jump quickly into Soberanía.

“We are working with outlying communities to minimize these problems,” Bosquez explains. “We offer training in growing native species and in agroforestry, so people will plant native tree species along with fruit trees. These trees will eventually shade out the paja blanca. The idea is to encourage people to conserve resources and be good park neighbors.”

ANAM’s Arlene Faheza oversees management of all the protected areas in the canal’s watershed: Soberanía, Chagres, and Camino de Cruces National Parks, Metropolitan Natural Park, and Barro Colorado Natural Monument. She concedes that the needs of a growing population adds to the difficulties of keeping the forested lands intact. “The city is advancing,” she says, “and many see the national parks like birthday cakes, just the place for their future homes. We can’t allow that.” Already, she says, Chagres National Park, which is the principal protector of the Canal watershed, has large deforested areas.

Faheza believes Soberanía can be a model park. Part of the plan is to increase ecotourism to this very accessible rainforest, also home to the Canopy Tower, a US Air Force radar post converted into a wildlife observatory, and Summit Botanical Garden and zoo. Just off the highway, El Charco Nature Trail offers a swimming hole, a half-mile trail along a gentle stream, and a picnic area on the banks of the Río Sardinilla. That’s where the group of journalists gather after leaving Pipeline Road and where Elizabeth Clark, in charge of environmental education for Soberanía, offers her own vision for Soberanía.

“My desire is that all the trails will be in good condition and with interpretation,” she says. “I hope to see all the communities outside the park working with us as allies, involved in reforestation, agroforestry, and ecotourism.” She adds that attitudes are indeed changing, that now when the park’s neighbors see a violation, they report it to ANAM.

Since Panamanians themselves will ultimately define their relationship with forested lands in the Canal watershed, ANAM and the Panama Audubon Society want to be sure citizens have the information they need to make wise land-use decisions. The journalists’ tour they arranged, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is part of this education campaign.

Contacts in Panama:

Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente
Apdo. 870575
Zona 7
Panama City
tel 507/232-5886
fax 507/232-6717

Norita Scott
Panama Audubon Society
Apdo. 2026
Balboa, Ancon
tel 507/ 224-9371
fax 507/ 224-4740


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