The fight to rewild the world’s largest urban forest


Experiencing Rio’s Hidden Gem: Tijuca Forest

In the bustling city of Rio de Janeiro, known for its famous beaches, lively Carnival, and love for football, lies a hidden gem that many people overlook: the Tijuca Forest. It’s not just any forest; it’s the largest urban forest in the world, right in the heart of a city with more than six million residents.

One moment, you might find yourself choked by traffic fumes under a concrete overpass. Just minutes later, you could be drenched in sweat, surrounded by the lush, sticky humidity of a forest. This is a unique experience that few cities can offer.

A Historical Forest

Tijuca Forest has a fascinating history. It was first protected in 1861, making it one of the earliest protected forests in the world, even before the first national park in the United States. The forest is a 40 square kilometer remnant of the Atlantic Forest, a once vast biome that stretched 1,000,000 square kilometers along the Brazilian coast. Unfortunately, only about 15% of the Atlantic Forest remains today, having been decimated by sugarcane and coffee plantations and extensive logging by European colonists since the 16th century.

The deforestation in Rio de Janeiro nearly spelled disaster for the city. Rivers dried up, leading to severe droughts. In the 1860s, Emperor Peter II had an innovative solution: reforest the area. He expropriated land from farmers and city dwellers and ordered enslaved Africans to plant over 100,000 trees. However, they didn’t bring back many of the animals that once lived in the forest.

Tijuca’s National Park Status

In 1967, Tijuca Forest was designated a national park, divided into three sections: the Tijuca Forest west of the city center, the area around the iconic Cristo Redentor statue, and the Pedra Bonita and Gávea mountains. Today, Tijuca National Park is Brazil’s most visited national park, attracting over 3.5 million visitors each year.

Professor Fernando Fernandez, an ecologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and co-founder of the conservation group Project Refauna, stresses the forest’s importance. “Imagine Rio without the forest, just bare mountains and sea – it wouldn’t be the wonderful city it is,” he says.

The Forest’s Vital Role

Tijuca Forest isn’t just a pretty backdrop; it’s crucial for regulating temperatures and providing freshwater to Rio’s millions of inhabitants. However, Fernandez warns that the forest isn’t as healthy as it looks. While hiking through the park reveals lush greenery, tall trees, and playful monkeys, many of the tallest trees are dying and not being replaced.

In a healthy forest, tall trees should create a dense canopy, but that’s not happening in Tijuca. This lack of canopy is a sign that the forest isn’t as mature as it should be. Fernandez explains that you should be able to see another person standing 50 or 100 meters away in a mature Atlantic Forest.

The Problem: Missing Animals

The main issue is the absence of many seed-spreading animals that once thrived in the forest. “If you don’t have the animals, you don’t have the trees,” says Catharina Kreischer, a researcher with Project Refauna. These animals are essential for spreading seeds across the forest. Trees produce colorful, tasty fruit to attract animals, which then eat the fruit and defecate the seeds elsewhere, helping new trees grow.

Many of these seed-spreading animals disappeared when the forest was cleared and haven’t returned. That’s why Project Refauna is focused on reintroducing these animals to Tijuca. A forest isn’t just trees; it’s also the animals that help those trees thrive.

Project Refauna’s Efforts

Unlike other rewilding projects that focus on reintroducing large predators, Project Refauna starts small. They focus on non-endangered species that used to live in the forest and can thrive again. Tijuca used to be home to 33 large and medium-sized species, including jaguars and tapirs, but only 11 remain. Many of the larger animals need more space or are too dangerous to reintroduce in an urban area.

In 2009, Project Refauna reintroduced red-rumped agoutis, a cat-sized rodent hunted to extinction in Tijuca but still found elsewhere in Rio. During my visit, I saw the impact of this project firsthand. We picked up an arara nut under a giant tree. Kreischer, who sports an agouti tattoo on her ankle, explained that she sees fewer seeds rotting on the ground now, indicating that the agoutis are successfully spreading seeds.

We continued our walk past the Cascatinha Taunay waterfall to meet Titan, a yellow-footed tortoise introduced to the park in 2020. Titan had to be separated from other tortoises due to his aggressive nature, which unfortunately means he won’t contribute to the population growth.

While tortoises are excellent seed dispersers, they haven’t thrived in Tijuca like the agoutis. Of the 56 tortoises introduced, only 30 remain, many falling victim to city dogs that invade the park. Kreischer showed me Project Refauna’s headquarters, where researchers are installing camera traps to catch these dogs.

Challenges and Setbacks

Project Refauna also faced setbacks with reintroducing howler monkeys. They brought back the primates in 2015, a century after they vanished from the park. However, a yellow fever outbreak killed five of the seven monkeys. Despite these challenges, Fernandez and his team are determined to keep going. They reintroduced a new group of vaccinated howler monkeys in January and plan to reintroduce the blue and yellow macaw next. Eventually, they hope to bring back the ocelot, the largest predator that could survive in Tijuca today.

“This is a project for decades,” Fernandez says. Saving a forest is slow work, and in the meantime, Fernandez and Kreischer believe that visiting the park can help. By hiking in the forest and learning about its ecosystem, people can appreciate its importance and contribute to its protection.

Visiting Tijuca Forest

My visit to Tijuca National Park was eye-opening. Starting at Praça Afonso Viseu, one of the park’s main entrances, Kreischer and I walked through lush trails and past stunning waterfalls. The park is free to enter and offers numerous trails leading to beautiful natural sights like the Pedra da Gávea and Pedra Bonita mountains.

Seeing the impact of Project Refauna’s work and understanding the forest’s vital role in Rio’s ecosystem highlighted the importance of continued conservation efforts. The more people visit and enjoy the forest, the more likely it is to remain protected for future generations.

Tijuca Forest is more than just a recreational space; it’s a crucial part of Rio de Janeiro’s survival. As Fernandez puts it, “The more people visit this forest, the more people enjoy this forest, the more protected the forest will be.”

So next time you find yourself in Rio, take a break from the beaches and the city’s hustle and bustle. Visit Tijuca Forest, hike its trails, enjoy its waterfalls, and appreciate the unique blend of nature and city life that makes Rio de Janeiro truly special. By doing so, you’ll be helping to protect this incredible urban forest for years to come.


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