A vast expanse of protected wilderness stretches eastward from Puerto Maldonado to Bolivia and southward all the way into the Andean foothills. Its forests, rivers, palm swamps, and ox-bow lakes are home to hundreds of bird and butterfly species, monkeys, tarantulas, turtles, and countless other jungle critters. This amazing natural diversity can be experienced from any of a dozen nature lodges scattered along the Madre de Dios River, the Tambopata River–which flows into the Madre de Dios at Puerto Maldonado, or the more distant Heath River.
Together, the contiguous Tambopata National Reserve and Bahuaja-Sonene National Park protect 3.8 million acres: an area the size of Connecticut. Several indigenous Ese'eja communites border the park; "Bahuaja" and "Sonene" are the Ese'eja names for the Tambopata and Heath rivers, respectively. The Río Heath forms Peru's southeastern boundary with neighboring Bolivia, and the former Pampas de Río Heath Reserve, along the border, is now incorporated
into Bahuaja-Sonene. It includes a looks-out-of-place "pampas" ecosystem that resembles an African savannah more than the lush Amazon forest that borders it.
Peru collaborates on conservation with Bolivia, whose adjoining Madidi National Park forms a vast, cross-border protected area that covers 7.2 million acres. Only environmentally friendly activities are permitted in Tambopata. In addition to participating in tourism, local communities collect castañas, or Brazil nuts, from the forest floor, and aguaje palm fruit in the swampland.
Elevations here range from 500 meters (1,640 feet) to a lofty 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), providing fertile habitat for an astounding diversity of animals and plants. The area holds a world record in the number of butterfly species (1,234). These protected areas contains Peru's largest collpas, or clay licks, which are visited by more than a dozen parrot, parakeet, and macaw species each morning. They congregate at dawn to eat the mineral-rich clay in the steep riverbank.