SAVING RAINFORESTS THAT REMAIN
By Rhett Butler | Last updated July 22, 2012
The third part to resolving the deforestation problem is setting aside land for conservation. As this site has tried
to make clear, conservation will not work without consideration for economic realities. The fate of
parks and reserves rests largely in the hands of local people and only by improving their living conditions can
saving rainforests through any sort of protected-areas system be addressed. Studies have shown that deforestation
and encroachment on parklands generally diminish as the quality of life improves. The previous sections have discussed
the means by which we can hope to elevate living conditions of local people. This final
section focuses on the mechanisms through which we can preserve some remaining areas of forest. There are two main
components: (1) prioritizing, through research and valuation, what areas to conserve, and (2) organizing the conservation
PRIORITIZING AREAS FOR CONSERVATION
Despite growing interest and intensive study on tropical rainforests, much still is unknown about the species it
holds, the complex interactions between these species, the effect of the loss of particular species, and the
entire role of the ecosystem. As these forests vanish, in-depth study will be required to maintain the maximum
diversity and sustainable yield. In addition, research will be required to determine the optimum size and location
of reserves in order to ensure the least loss of species
At the least, further research is necessary to prove the economic value of forests in order to make cases against
short-sighted development plans. Research can also provide insights on how to make the sustainable collection of
forest products more efficient and uncover new exploitable sources for food, medicine, and other needs.
DOCUMENTING SPECIES: HOW AND WHY
More than 95 percent of the species on earth remain undescribed at best, unknown in most cases. Of the estimated 5-50
million species only 1.8 have been documented; however of these, many are known only by their scientific name, a few
details about their origins, and maybe several facts about their life histories. At the rate that we are describing species,
it would take some 4,000 years to describe all that exist in the world today. The larger, more conspicuous species,
like birds and mammals, have been mostly documented, although every couple of years a new mammal species is discovered
(about a dozen lemur species since 1986, and four new primate species in Brazil since 1990), and an average of two to three bird
species are found annually. A worldwide species survey would be beneficial.
Examples of New Species Discovery
Every year scientists stumble across species previously unknown to science. Some examples:
The purpose of these surveys is to determine where "hot
spots" may exist. These are places with a great diversity
of species, many of which are endemic or found nowhere else. Currently there are several general levels of survey
including rapid-assessment programs (RAP) and more long-term projects. The rapid-assessment program was created
by Conservation International in an effort to investigate poorly known areas that may be "hot spots."
The targeted area is usually relatively small in area and may be immediately threatened by development. The examining
team focuses on certain well-known groups like mammals, reptiles, and birds, and based on the diversity and endemicism,
decides whether the region is unique enough to be saved. If they judge it to be, the RAP makes its recommendations
to the government and ideally the area is set aside as a reserve. Other surveys, conducted over much longer periods
and larger areas, are designed to learn more about the ecosystem and determine how it should be best used. Often
these areas may contain multiple "hot spots" and may not be immediately threatened by development. The
model for such projects is Costa Rica's INBio, Institute of Biodiversity, which aims to account for all plants
and animals of the country and to use the information to improve the environment and economy. In 1999, an ambitious
expedition lead by conservation biologist Michael Fay set off on foot to survey forest from the Central African Republic across Congo to the coast of Gabon. Exactly 455 days and 2,000 km later, Fay completed the most extensive inventory of the Congo Basin ever made. Data from the "metatransect" was used by three African governments to designate conservation priorities and served as the basis for Gabon's new park system.
THE BIG PICTURE
Besides species surveys, accurate and objective assays are needed to assess the various environmental conditions
pertaining to the rainforest. Annual forest cover, deforestation rates, climate change, siltation, urban growth
and encroaching development, erosion, pollution, and other trends need be recorded to establish baselines to properly assess the
situation. The good news is there are a number of government and private sector Earth observation programs. The best known of these is Landsat, which is run by NASA. Google has helped popularize Landsat images by making them easily accessible via Google Earth.
More articles on remote sensing and conservation >>
- Why is it important to conduct species inventories in tropical forests?
- How can satellites help in rainforest conservation?
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