Magazine article Geographical

Vanishing Eden

Magazine article Geographical

Vanishing Eden

Article excerpt

As rich in biodiversity as they are in folklore and mystery, tropical rainforests are the ultimate destination for many geographers and aspiring explorers. But beware, says Keith Wilson: for photographers, they present a series of challenges that should be approached with care--and the right gear

Of all the world's ecosystems, tropical rainforests are the most complex and mysterious. They're the oldest ecosystems on Earth: those in parts of Southeast Asia and northeast Australia have existed for at least 100 million years. By escaping the reach of the ice ages, the plants and animals that make their homes in this verdant habitat have been able to evolve into an extraordinary diversity of life forms.

It's almost impossible to describe tropical rainforests without resorting to superlatives and listing an array of mind boggling facts that underline their importance to the rest of Earth's ecosystems. For instance, although they cover barely six per cent of our planet's land area, tropical rainforests are home to almost half of the world's animal species. Scientists researching the tropical rainforests of Peru have found more species of bird in one reserve than are present in the entire USA, and on a single tree, they found 43 different species of ant--more than all of the ant species found in the British Isles. And a single hectare of tropical rainforest typically contains up to 750 types of tree and 1,500 other plant species.

The world's largest area of tropical rainforest--the Amazon Basin--is so rich in biodiversity that new plant and animal species are still being discovered on a regular basis. However, scientists also believe that deforestation is accounting for the extinction of nearly 50,000 plant, insect and vertebrate species every year.

If the Amazon rainforest were a country, it would be the ninth largest in the world. Often described as 'the lungs of the Earth', the Amazon produces more than a fifth of the world's oxygen. The 400 million hectares of dense vegetation continuously recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen, thereby playing a significant role in regulating the planet's atmosphere and helping to counteract climate change.

LARDER, MEDICINE CHEST

It's the density and abundance of life in all its forms that makes a tropical rainforest such a fascinating habitat to explore. Biologists, environmentalists and chemists all agree that there's still far more to be discovered in this ecosystem than what we already know. For instance, around three quarters of the developed world's diet originated from tropical rainforest plants, but only 200 of the more than 3,000 fruits found in rainforests are cultivated.

The plants of a tropical rainforest also provide the raw materials for around a quarter of the Western world's prescription drugs, but scientists have tested less than one per cent of tropical trees and plants for their medicinal value.

Rainforests are also home to some of the scarcest species on Earth. For example, the Maues marmoset, which wasn't discovered until 1992, lives only in a small patch of rainforest on the west bank of Rio Maues-Acu in central Brazil, while in the decimated jungles of Indonesia, the last Javan and Sumatran rhinoceros number fewer than 50 and 200 individuals respectively. For these endangered mammals, a once sprawling rainforest habitat has been reduced to a small, threatened sanctuary by decades of intensive deforestation for timber, livestock pasture and palm oil plantations.

HEADLINE SPECIES

In many tropical rainforests, the animals with the highest public profiles are also the most endangered. The gorillas of Central Africa's equatorial jungles, the Amazon's giant otters, northeast Queensland's cassowaries and the orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo are a major attraction for camera-toting tourists as well as professional photographers. Due to their size, distinctive markings and behaviour, each of these creatures makes a conspicuous subject for the camera. …

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