NEW YORK -- The first of a string of Central American "peace parks" intended to save critical wilderness areas and end decades-old border disputes has been launched in Costa Rica and Panama, officials said.

The park has been established in the misty mountains of the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, which includes the largest tract of undisturbed cloud forest in Central America. The reserve straddles the border of Costa Rica and Panama. As many as 40 percent of its plants and animals are found nowhere else on Earth.

So far, 115 fish species, 215 reptiles and amphibians and at least 500 bird species have been found there.

Similar parks are on the drawing board for a forest that overlaps the border of Belize and Guatemala and for the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which includes parts of Mexico and Guatemala, officials said Wednesday.

A third is planned for an area along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, said James Nations, director of the Latin American program of Conservation International, a private environmental organization in the District of Columbia.

"The idea is to defuse the border conflict by creating an international peace park in an area that was formerly the haunt of the contras," said Nations. "What we're doing is looking for regional solutions to regional problems."

Central America has more different species of plants and animals than any comparably sized region on Earth, according to Conservation International. It is one-eighteenth the size of the United States, but has just as many plant species and twice as many vertebrates.

Nations said Conservation International and the Organization of American States have just completed a management plan for the Costa Rican side of the peace park that specifies steps that must be taken to protect the park, including projects to improve the well-being of residents.

"It is the first time the original residents of the region are being treated as equals in deciding how land and resources will be managed," said Hernan Seguro, a Bribri Indian and a representative to the park's coordinating commission.

The proposed peace park along the Guatemala-Belize border exemplifies the importance of international cooperation in preserving ecosystems, he said.

The border is criss-crossed by the Chiquibul River, which begins in Belize, runs through Guatemala and then dumps into Belize's San Ignacio Valley, an agricultural area that supplies most of Belize's food.

"What happens to that river when it's in Guatemala is vitally important to Belize," he said. "If you can get the two countries talking to protect that forest, you've done something positive for both countries."