updated 8/14/2008 4:53:25 PM ET 2008-08-14T20:53:25

Oil exploration in the Amazon rain forest represents the latest, perhaps greatest, threat to preserving what remains of the world's largest remaining tropical wilderness, scientists said Wednesday.

Scientists from Duke University said a new study revealed a Texas-size chunk of rain forest stretching across Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and western Brazil has been approved for petroleum exploration and production.

"Filling up with a tank of gas could soon have devastating consequences to rain forests, their people and their species," said Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke and one of the study's authors.

The study, conducted together with the environmental groups Save America's Forests and Land is Life, was published Tuesday in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

Matt Finer, of Save America's Forests, said the study's mapping of oil and gas activities across the western Amazon showed the exploration blocks were concentrated in the most intact jungle regions.

Development of these blocks almost certainly would bring with them roads and pipelines, spelling unparalleled rain forest destruction, Finer said.

The situation is most troubling in the Peruvian Amazon, according to the study, which found 64 oil and gas blocks covering approximately 72 percent of that country's share of the rain forest.

In Brazil, the government recently sold off 25 exploration concessions in remote regions of the western Amazon, close to areas inhabited by some the world's last tribes uncontacted by anthropologists.

The Amazon rain forest covers about 1.6 million square miles or about 40 percent of the South American continent. About 20 percent of the forest already has been razed.

"Roadless extraction would greatly reduce environmental and social impacts," the study authors wrote, while "disinterested, regional scale strategic environmental assessments would prevent piecemeal damage across large areas."

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