The Orinoco turtle was nearly extinct, so environmental officials dispatched agents to guard the tiny sand islands in the mighty Orinoco River where the females of the species lay their eggs. But instead of protecting the turtles and their eggs, the agents sold them to restaurant owners who used them for turtle soup.

Environmentalists say the theft two years ago nearly destroyed efforts to save the most endangered species in Venezuela and the largest freshwater turtle in South America.

Venezuela's Amazon rain forests, sprawling plains, snowcapped Andean mountains and Caribbean coral reefs feature some of the world's most exotic wildlife. But this modern-day Eden is in peril. The Environmental Ministry is understaffed, underpaid, rife with corruption and mired in confusion, according to environmentalists.

"There's no law enforcement for anything," said Clemencia Rodner, of the Venezuelan Audubon Society. "It's total, absolute chaos."

On the country's highways, poachers openly sell endangered tropical parrots. Lake Maracaibo, the largest lake in South America, has become a "garbage pail" of oil and waste from tankers, said environmentalist Anna Ponte.

Thousands of illegal gold miners uproot trees in rain forests with hydraulic water pumps and poison rivers with mercury, which is used to extract gold from ore. National Guardsmen in charge of evicting them extort money from them instead, Ponte said.

Prized coral reefs in Morrocoy National Park turned gray and died four years ago. Scientists have not ruled out a natural phenomenon as the cause, but environmentalists blame toxic wastes dumped by ships.

Government officials acknowledge that environmental protection has slipped badly, but they say President Hugo Chavez's new administration is determined to end the deterioration.

"It's a disaster, but we're trying to recover our authority so we can enforce the law," said Environment Minister Jesus Arnaldo Perez.

Venezuela was once a leader in environmental protection. It created Latin America's first ministry to protect the environment in 1977 and has designated one-third of the nation--which is about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined--as parks or reserves.

The country is home to neon-colored butterflies, freshwater dolphins, jaguars, tapirs, red howler monkeys, black and yellow frogs, giant anteaters, the world's largest eagle--the endangered harpy--and the world's largest rodent, the capybara.

But enforcement of environmental laws, which was never strong here, has deteriorated in recent years. A major controversy erupted in October when Pemon Indians knocked down several towers that are part of a high-voltage power line the government is building in southeastern rain forests that are supposed to be protected by environmental laws.

The line passes through Canaima national park, the crown jewel of Venezuela's parks system and one of 100 U.N.-designated World Heritage Sites. It is the site of the world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls, and of the mysterious flat-topped mountains that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel "The Lost World."

The Indians say the power line will mar Canaima's breathtaking landscape and spur development by providing electricity to mining companies that want to exploit huge gold deposits. Government officials sau the project will inflict little environmental damage and that development of the region is needed to create jobs in Venezuela, an oil-rich country in which the majority of people are poor. They say the $110 million electricity project cannot be stopped because the government has signed contracts to provide power to towns in neighboring Brazil.

Chavez envisions moving millions of people out of teeming, dangerous cities in northern Venezuela and creating population and industrial centers in the sparsely populated east and south, where much of the country's most spectacular wildlife lives.

Critics say the plan is a recipe for environmental catastrophe since the region is already barely protected. Canaima, the sixth-largest national park in the world, has 14 just rangers to oversee the 7.4 million-acre expanse, as big as Belgium. Most get around on rusty bicycles.