Among the Canal's many surprises is its natural surroundings of rigorously protected forest. Deforestation would reduce the rainfall flowing into the rivers that feed the Canal and its locks, and the consequent erosion would quickly block its channels with silt. The Canal runs on rain.
National parks protect much of the watershed that feeds the Canal.
Soberanía National Park
Soberanía NP covers the forested hillsides east of the Canal. It is a paradise for birdwatchers, with a record 525 species listed in a single 24 hour period in 1996. The magnificent forest of cotton, cuipo and oak trees is also home to 100 mammal species, 55 amphibian and 79 species of reptile including agouti, cotton-topped tamarind monkey, caiman, collared peccaries, night monkey, jaguar and white-tailed deer. A former USAF radar tower, now converted to a birders' lodge, perches on a hill with fantastic 360° views into and over the forest canopy.
Las Cruces National Park
The gently rolling landscape of Las Cruces NP bordering Soberanía to the south boasts its fare share of flora and fauna and is renowned for palm and cotton trees that burst into colour in April and May.
San Lorenzo National Park
The recently established San Lorenzo National Park to the west of the Caribbean end of the Canal protects a mix of habitats, mostly wet lowland forest, and is similarly bird-rich but harder to access.
Gatun Lake, created by the damming of the mighty Chagres river to form the central section of the Canal, is now teeming with wildlife and well worth a visit.
Barro Colorado Island within the lake is world famous for the study of tropical nature.
Chagres National Park
A little further afield, Chagres National Park protects the river's headwaters, and offers a preview of the great forests of the Darién that lie beyond. Important spectaculars such as the harpy eagle and tapir inhabit its rugged landscape, accessible by road from Panama City. Lush valleys and boisterous rivers stand in contrast to towering craggy peaks, the highest of which is Cerro Jefe, at 1007m.