Peru's Manu is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Home to over 1,000 species of birds, 300 species of trees, and countless other life forms, Manu showcases life at its most prolific. But deep within Manu's rain forest also lie stories and histories of Indians and foreign explorers of centuries past. Though their footprints have disappeared over time, these inhabitants and travelers have made deep impressions that have shaped Manu into what it is today.

Home to numerous indigenous Indian tribes, the Peruvian rain forest's most recognized Indian inhabitants were the Incas whose capital was in the Andes but whose empire extended into the cloud forest. With their large empire, the Incas had many contacts with the jungle Indians of Manu. At its height, the Inca empire spanned 3,000 miles (4,800 km) across South America. Inca territory was divided into quarters, with Cuzco, the city where the Inca Sun King resided, at the center. Communication between cities was facilitated by "chaskis," couriers who ran between locations to send information.

During the 1500s, the Inca's hold on the region began to wane. Spurred by discoveries in the new world, Spanish conquistadors began exploring South America and claiming these newly-found areas for Spain. By 1532, Peru was conquered by Spaniard Francisco Pizarro, and in 1567, Alvarez Maldonado claimed the Manu river and surrounding regions for Spain.

Even though the Spanish ruled the territory, they knew little of the rain forest's natural resources and waterways. Renewed interest in exploring Manu developed after the rubber boom. In 1839, Charles Goodyear heated rubber sap with sulfur, producing the first commercially viable, heat-resistant rubber. After this discovery, demand for rubber trees ran high, and Manu, with its rich bounty of rubber trees, became the perfect source for satisfying this need.

Also crucial to Manu's rubber trade was baron Carlos Fitzgerald's ("Fitzcarraldo") crossing of a divide between the Upper Mishagua and Upper Manu. This divide, eventually called the "Fitzgerald Pass," provided an accessible travel route to the Madre de Dios River. In 1880, approximately 8,000 tons of rubber were exported from Peru, but by 1900, the number of exports climbed to an amazing 27,000 tons of rubber. In 1914, Manu's rubber trade collapsed, suffering from competition from Southeast Asian rubber suppliers and deforestation.

Manu's landscape has changed since its pristine early years, and several animal and plant species have become endangered since the rubber boom. In 1967, the Peruvian government signed an agreement with other American countries to establish national parks to promote conservation of regional flora and fauna. This agreement specified that the park "covered more than half the country... contained the greatest number of Peru's wide range of animals and birds...be in a virgin state, uninhabited and unaffected by the operations of hunters, lumbers, or colonists...[and] included every biotope from the riverside forests of the Amazon's main tributaries." In 1968, Manu was declared a National Reserve, and five years later, it was upgraded to a National Park.

Today, the entire region of Manu -- a total size of 7200 square miles (1,881,200 hectares) -- is considered a Biosphere Reserve. The Manu Biosphere Reserve is composed of three parts: the Manu National Park, a region protecting the natural flora and fauna; the Manu Reserved Zone, an area reserved for research and tourism; and the Manu Cultural Zone, a place used for human settlement. With these recent conservation efforts, life in Manu flourishes. Presently, scientists and researchers are learning more about the indigenous Indians that still inhabit Manu, as well as of the regional flora and fauna.

Click here to learn more about the conservation efforts and human history of Manu.

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