The wildlife in protected tropical forests is increasingly threatened, a new study finds. Now, around the world ways are sought to stop this decline in biodiversity.
The study “Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas,” recently published in the scientific journal, Nature, identifies illegal hunting as one of the main causes of biological decline in tropical reserves.
The study is the most comprehensive on tropical reserves to date. More than 200 scientists contributed data collected over the past 30 years from 60 areas across the world.
Karl Eduard Linsenmair from the University of Würzburg in Germany, who has done extensive research in the tropical forests of West Africa and Southeast Asia over the last three decades, contributed to the study.
A growing population and more sophisticated weaponry have increased the pressure on wildlife within the forests, said Linsenmair.
Traditional tribes who lived off the forest had rules for hunting that guaranteed sustainable use. For example, they would not shoot animals heavy with young. Poachers today act very differently.
“A professional poacher does not spare any animal. He shoots everything that is in sight and is worth more than the cartridges. … Thus, they can empty out whole areas,” says Linsenmair.
As a result, the majority of reserves can be considered, what Rhett Harrison calls “empty forests.” These are forests, which are largely devoid of large- and medium-sized mammals and birds. Harrison wrote a paper for the journal BioScience in November 2011 on the threat poaching poses on reserves.
Like with every ecosystem, predators are crucial to the ecological balance of tropical forests. When prey animals multiply unchecked due to predators being killed off, this can cause an ecological disruption. For example, prey may excessively eat seeds that make it more difficult for plants to multiply.
About 18 percent of the world’s tropical forests are designated as protected areas, where commercial activity is forbidden or strictly limited. Due to increasing deforestation of the world’s rainforests, for many threatened species in the tropics, these nature reserves have become the final refuges.
Tropical forests harbor about half of the richness and diversity of the world’s species. The reserves’ resilience is a crucial condition for their survival.
According to the study, now half of the protected areas are under threat.
“Many protected areas in the tropics are themselves vulnerable to human encroachment and other environmental stresses,” the study finds.
The emergence of a global market has created new incentives for poachers to increase the kill off. Linsenmair cites estimates that every day, up to a ton of wildlife meat from tropical forests arrives at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, alone.
A key problem is that many poachers act with impunity, Harrison writes. Hence he suggests improving enforcement by local authorities as well as the prosecution of poachers.
The International Anti-Poaching Foundation, based in Zimbabwe, is taking a dual route. Besides training anti-poaching units that crack down on poachers in Southern African wildlife parks, they have started to offer poachers an alternative to their trade.
Regarded for their intimate knowledge of the terrain and wildlife, the foundation has begun training convicted poachers as rangers themselves. This means “one less poacher ‘off the street’ … but it also ensures that the unit has a broader knowledge base to use in the course of their duties,” its website states.
Additionally, besides poaching, other illegal economic activities in the reserves contribute to their decline. For example, the washing of gold, pollutes forest rivers with mercury and harms organisms living there.
To help boost the health of the protected areas, Linsenmair suggests improving their layout, which are often small and fragmented. Many species cannot migrate properly since the reserves often border on large cultivated areas.
For example, many birds would not move outside the protection of trees. It would help many species to have corridors joining several reserves. Animal migration is crucial to stabilizing populations and preserving genetic variety, he says.
William F. Laurance from James Cook University, Australia, one of the lead authors of the study, in a news release stresses the importance of reserves.
“We have no choice tropical forests are the biologically richest real estate on the planet, and a lot of that biodiversity will vanish without good protected areas.”
With additional reporting by Heike Soleinsky .
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