Nature's Last Bastions

By Rabinowitz, Alan | Natural History, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Nature's Last Bastions

Rabinowitz, Alan, Natural History

"Sustainable use" of our tropical forests may be little more than wishful thinking.

Initially I wasn't enthusiastic about reading Requiem for Nature. Having just returned from a jaguar preserve in Belize I set up fifteen years ago, and preparing to embark on a wildlife survey along the MyanmarAssam border, the last thing I wanted to think about was a funeral mass for nature.

After more than two decades in the field, I know only too well that wildlife and wildlands are taking a beating. But after a few pages, I was drawn into this beautifully written book by John Terborgh, codirector of Duke University's Center for Tropical Conservation. I marveled at his insights, empathized with his frustration, and applauded his courage in speaking out about the mistakes of the conservation movement.

The book takes us into one of the world's great wild areas, Peru's Manu National Park. Terborgh has been conducting fieldwork in this 3.7-million-acre park for the last twenty-five years. Located in southeastern Peru, on the fringe of the upper Amazon basin, the park is an epicenter of global biodiversity. It boasts almost 1,000 species of birds, more than 200 species of mammals (including 13 primate species, jaguars, tapirs, and spectacled bears), between 150 and 200 species of trees, and, in just one lowland site, more than 1,300 documented butterfly species. But nature reserves such as Manu are in deep trouble, Terborgh asserts, because of the misguided conventional wisdom of conservation organizations and funding agencies. From the beginning, however, the author makes clear that the book's purpose is not simply to criticize but to offer solutions.

Terborgh draws on a store of facts and anecdotes to portray the push-pull between conservation and development.

We learn that as of 1996, 3.7 percent of Earth's land area had been formally designated as parkland by the IUCN (World Conservation Union). Yet Terborgh presents a bleak picture of downsized and degraded tropical parks, depleted of fauna (the "empty forest syndrome") and occupied by increasing numbers of people.

Citing estimates that 40 percent of Earth's annual growth of plant life has already been usurped by humans, he wonders what will happen to this biodiversity as the population doubles by the middle of the twenty-first century.

Nature, according to Terborgh, is a dynamic web of constantly changing interactions involving plants and animals.

When these interactions are distorted, the inevitable result is species loss. So how large must a nature reserve such as Manu be to maintain its biological richness?

Terborgh points out that the Amazon basin's top predators-magnificent animals such as jaguars and harpy eagles, which are often in direct conflict with human activities-must have an area large enough to support three hundred breeding females of each species, or their genetic diversity will diminish. And when predators disappear, natural systems are altered dramatically. Through such examples, he makes the point that everything we attempt in conservation will fail if we do not get the science right first.

The most problematic challenges to conserving wildlands, states Terborgh, are social (overpopulation, poverty, corruption), and governments, conservation organizations, and funding agencies are doing a poor job of addressing them.

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