Saving What Remains


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 effort.



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.

The Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler


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.


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.

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This image shows a small deforested patch with individual trees, colored by height. The densest biomass is red, while deforested areas — with low biomass — are shades of blue. Image courtesy of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory. Click picture for more information.

Review questions:

  • Why is it important to conduct species inventories in tropical forests?
  • How can satellites help in rainforest conservation?

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Continued / Next: Reserve Placement

  • E.O. Wilson (The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1992) estimates that 95% of the planet's species remain undescribed and at the rate we are progressing it would take nearly 4000 years to describe all the species on Earth.
  • Dietz, James M. ("Conservation of Biodiversity in Neotropical Primates," from Biodiversity II, Reaka-Kudla, Wilson, Wilson, eds. Washington D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 1997) notes that since 1990 four new primate species have been discovered in Brazil.
  • The complexity of interactions within ecosystems is summed up in an eloquent fashion by E.O. Wilson in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Ecologists have attempted to simplify their understanding of these systems by linking biodiversity and ecosystem function through defining membership in functional groups as explained by Silver, W.L., Brown, S., and Lugo, A.E., "Effects of changes in biodiversity on ecosystem function in tropical forests," Conservation Biology Vol. 10 No. 1 (17-24), Feb. 1996.
  • Stone, R. ("A Long March to Save Africa's Dwindling Wildlands," Science 285 (5429): 825, 6-Aug-1999) publicizes conservation biologist Fay's walk across the Congo.
  • The Global 2000 conservation strategy is presented by Olson, D. and Dinerstein, E. in The Global 200: A Representation Approach to Conserving the Earth's Distinctive Ecoregions, Conservation Science Program, World Wildlife Fund, Washington, DC., 1998.
  • Biodiversity "Hot Spots" are defined and pinpointed in Myers, N., "Threatened Biotas" 'Hot spots' in Tropical Forests," Environmentalist, 8 (3): 187-208, 1988. A revised look at biodiversity hot-spots can be found in Myers, N., "The Biodiversity Challenge: Expanded Hot-Spots Analysis," Environmentalist, 10 (4): 243-256, 1990.
  • Studies on isolated forest reserves showing reduced diversity can be found in Laurance, W.F. and R.O. Bierregaard, Jr, eds., Tropical Forest Remnants: Ecology, Management, and Conservation of Fragmented Communities, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997 and Bawa, K.S. and Seidler, R., "Natural Forest Management and Conservation of Biodiversity in Tropical Forests," Conservation Biology Vol. 12 No. 1 (46-55), Feb 1998.
  • Changes in species composition over time on Barro Colorado Island are discussed in Quammen, D., The Song of the Dodo, New York: Scribner, 1996; Laurance, W.F. and R.O. Bierregaard, Jr, eds., Tropical Forest Remnants: Ecology, Management, and Conservation of Fragmented Communities, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997; Robinson, W.D. "Long-term changes in the avifauna of Barro Colorado Island, Panama, a tropical forest isolate." Conservation Biology Vol. 13 No. 1 (85-97), Feb. 1999.
  • Turner, I.M. and Corlett, R.T., "The conservation value of small, isolated fragments of lowland tropical rain forest," Trends in Ecology & Evolution Vol. 11, No. 8. August 1998 argue the answer to the question "Are Forest Fragments Worth Saving" is "yes."
  • An overview of biodiversity and ecosystem valuation is presented in Wilson, E.O., The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1992. Wilson argues that by putting a price on the goods and services biodiversity provides we may be able to reduce uninformed destruction of species and ecosystems.
  • Costanza, R., ed., Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of Sustainability, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991 values ecosystems and the benefits they provide at $33 trillion per year.
  • Dasgupta, S., Laplante, N., and Mamingi, N., find that stock prices for individual firms in developing countries react to environmental news in "Capital Market Responses to Environmental Performance in Developing Countries," The World Bank Research Group, 1997.
  • The savings from the importation of weevils for oil-palm plantations is stated in Greathead, D.J., "The multi-million dollar weevil that pollinates oil palm," Antenna (Royal Entomological Society of London), 7: 105-107. 1983 and Myers, N., "The world's forests: problems and potentials," Environmental Conservation. 23 (2) p. 158-168, 1996.
  • The box "Economic Values" is taken from Kumari, K., "Sustainable forest management: Myth or Reality? Exploring the Prospects for Malaysia," Ambio Vol. 25 No. 7, Nov. 1996.
  • Other forms of biodiversity and ecosystem valuation are reviewed in Oksanen, M. ("The Moral Value of Biodiversity" Ambio Vol. 26 No. 8, Dec. 1997); O'Neill, J. ("Managing without Prices: the Monetary Valuation of Biodiversity," Ambio Vol. 26 No. 8, Dec. 1997); Hawken, P. (The Ecology of Commerce: a Declaration of Sustainability New York: HarperCollins, 1993); Carson, R.T. "Valuation of tropical rainforests: philosophical and practical issues in the use of contingent valuation," Ecological Economics 24 (1998) 15-29.
  • The box, "Lower taxes and save the environment" comes from Kramer, G., "Group says tax pollution, not paychecks, profits," A.P. 5/11/97.
  • An overview of biodiversity and ecosystem valuation is presented in E.O. Wilson (The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1992) suggests using blocked funds as a mechanism to ease debt pressures on developing countries.