Protecting the Rivers that Connect Us

Protecting the Rivers that Connect Us

Conserving riparian habitat (habitat near rivers, streams and lakes) is a key element in the protection of terrestrial and marine habitats, since these ecosystems are closely connected.

The state of river conservation in the South Caribbean is concerning. The biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems faces different levels of threats, from the wastewater that makes its way to rivers, to the deforestation of river banks, to the pollution caused by excess nitrates and phosphates used in agriculture.

The Iguazu River often turns a reddish-brown color due to sediment suspended in the water, especially after heavy rains/Photo by Spouse of Leonard G. from Wikimedia Commons

These combined threats are causing a decline in the biodiversity of the riparian areas: critical habitat for sloths, white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, birds and many other species necessary for the balance and health of the ecosystem. Therefore, we must protect and conserve these important areas.

Even big cats, such as jaguars, depend upon rivers for their prey./Photo of jaguar hunting caiman by Suzi Eszterhas

Caring for rivers

The care and maintenance of rivers not only helps sloths and other wildlife in the area but also directly contributes to the conservation of marine species and the protection of coral reefs.

For example, by reforesting riparian and coastal areas, we gradually reduce the amount erosion and sediment that runs down the rivers. Once this sediment reaches the ocean, it covers coral reefs and prevents the symbiotic algae (zooxanthella) that lives within them from carrying out photosynthesis.

Satellite image of sediment carried by the Amazon River to the Atlantic Ocean/Image by Oton Barros from Wikimedia Commons

As trees grow they also help to reduce ocean acidification by absorbing the CO2 that would be taken up by the ocean. In addition to using carbon, these trees help to absorb the excess nutrients that go down the river, that cause an excessive growth of algae on the reefs.

Excess nutrients (such as nitrates and phosphates) can lead to algal overgrowth, stunting the growth of coral and eventually leading to its demise/Photo by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from Wikimedia Commons

Moreover by planting trees, we also help to maintain a healthy and connected ecosystem for tree-dwelling species such as two and three-fingered sloths.

Two and three-fingered sloths thrive in these rich riverside habitats./Photo by Suzi Eszterhas

Protecting downstream ecosystems

Cleaning the areas adjacent to rivers prevents a large amount of materials and plastics from harming marine life, such as dolphins, turtles, fish etc. that often ingest plastics thinking they are food or get caught in plastic debris.

Plastic pollution in rivers eventually make their way downstream to the ocean/Photo by Wilfredor from Wikimedia Commons

As we can see, the terrestrial and marine worlds are inextricably linked and riparian habitat plays a fundamental role in the health of both ecosystems. With the right conservation practices put in place, we can have a very positive impact not only on these vital river habitats but also on the biodiversity of the whole ecosystem.

Pygmy three-fingered sloths particularly rely on riparian habitat, calling the mangrove forests of Isla Escudo de Veraguas their home/Photo by Suzi Eszterhas

-Maria Cabrera, Coral Conservation

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