Racing to Save Hot Spots of Life

With tropical rain forests fading faster than ever, superscientists are homing in on areas with the most species

  • Michael Lipske
  • Apr 01, 1992
In coming to terms with the bird-finding skills of Theodore A. Parker III, it may help to imagine him as something more than a mere mortal man of science. Rather, consider picturing him as a dazzling example of high-tech ornithological hardware.

Lowered into the tropical rain forest by helicopter, the bearded, remarkably human-looking apparatus would be wrestled into position among shrubs and vines beneath the treetops. As the dawn chorus of bird song gathered strength, technicians in robin's-egg blue uniforms would flip switches on consoles wired to Parker. A few seconds of warm-up and whirring sounds would begin whispering from Parker's innards. Lights would flicker on a monitor. Shortly thereafter, the scientific names of bird species--Amazona ochrocephala, Harpagus bidentatus, Tigrisoma lineatum--would start spelling out on the electronic screen by ones and twos, then by tens and twenties and, ultimately, by the hundreds.

It helps to imagine Theodore Parker this way because he is a Top-Gun birdman with the sensitive ears of a jungle bat and the bottomless memory of a polyglot. Senior Scientist with the U.S. organization Conservation International, Parker can identify solely by sound more than 3,000 species of birds in the New World tropics--an unmatched ability he has honed in 18 years of scientific fieldwork and over the course of a bird-watching career he says did not get underway "seriously" until he reached the age of eight. Forthright about his immense skill ("I can go into a place and in five days of good weather I can find 80 to 90 percent of all the birds there," he says), Parker likens it to learning a language. Traveling or at home, he often unwinds by listening to his collection of bird recordings.

Lately, the scientist has been putting his gift to work in heretofore unstudied slivers and patches of South American rain forest believed to harbor unusually rich communities of birds, mammals, plants and other species--biological treasure troves that are also under such intense assault from commercial development and from exploding human populations, they may disappear altogether in a few years. These "hot spots," as the forest fragments have been dubbed by conservationists, may harbor as much as a fifth of the Earth's plant species and a far larger proportion of animal species, while covering a mere speck of the globe.

Parker and his colleagues--a three-man, one-woman ecosquad made up of what one professional admirer calls "field-biology superstars"--make rapid assessments of the jungle hot spots, figuratively picking them up and shaking out a representative sample of their living contents. Brought together by Conservation International, the team (collectively known as the Rapid Assessment Program, or RAP) gathers information intended to help environmentalists and officials in host countries and the United States channel rain forest-saving efforts and scarce dollars toward protecting some of the neediest habitats on Earth.

Russell A. Mittermeier, Conservation International's president, calls Parker "a classic RAP scientist--a walking computer." But it will take more than a handful of superscientists like him to stop the hemorrhage of extinctions from the world's tropical forests.

A green belt of life girding the planet along both sides of the Equator, tropical forests cover a mere 6 percent of Earth's land surface. Yet they are "utterly cluttered with species," writes biologist John C. Kricher in A Neotropical Companion. For example, the Amazon forest may be the home of 30,000 plant species, twice the number of plant types found throughout the United States. A square kilometer of South American forest can provide a home for hundreds of bird species and thousands of insect types. Forty-three ant species were counted on one tree in the Peruvian Amazon--more kinds of ants than are found in the entire British Isles. Some 1,200 plant species were recorded in less than a square kilometer of forest at a biological station in Ecuador.

Unfortunately, vast tracts of these fecund forests are being destroyed, frequently before scientists have even begun to tabulate their contents. Clearing by impoverished farmers as well as commercial logging claimed 42 million acres of tropical forest during 1990, according to a United Nations report. At more than an acre a second, that rate of loss is 40 percent faster than the speed of forest destruction ten years ago.

Western Ecuador provides one of the best, and most depressing, examples of how quickly a wealth of forest biodiversity can fade. A North Carolina-sized region, the western part of Ecuador once provided habitat for some 6,300 different lowland plant species. But in the last three decades, a mix of overpopulation and land clearing to grow bananas and other commodities has stripped forest from the region. Now, only 4 percent of western Ecuador's original forest still stands.

According to Theodore Parker, an ecosystem such as Ecuador's coastal moist forest could vanish altogether in another two to three years. Twenty percent of plant species in Ecuador's western region are endemic--found nowhere else on Earth. "We're talking," says Parker, "about a hell of a lot of species that are threatened with extinction."

"All of the hot spots are last-ditch efforts," adds Russell Mittermeier. And the list of death-row forests is long.

As catalogued by British ecologist Norman Myers, who coined the hot spots concept, these rich but threatened forests span the globe and represent potential holocaust sites of plant and animal extinctions. Of the 18 sites Myers has identified, the Brazilian coastal forest, portions of western Ecuador, plus a rich forested strip along the eastern side of Madagascar (with some 6,000 plant species) are considered the most imperiled hot spots. Ranked right behind them are 15 only slightly less threatened species-troves in Colombia, Western Amazonia, the Ivory Coast, the Eastern Himalayas, Malaysia, the Philippines and other parts of the tropics and subtropics.

All told, the 18 hot spots support close to 50,000 endemic plant species. Because tropical forest inventories suggest the existence of at least 20 animal species for every one plant, the hot spots may contain 1.25 million species of insects, reptiles, mammals, birds and other creatures. For the RAP squad of biological hotshots, Myers' roster provides a focus for investigations. "Maybe by doing the quick and dirty survey work we're doing," says RAP botanist Alwyn H. Gentry, senior curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden, "we can know enough" to make more informed conservation choices.

In the effort to know more, Conservation International's RAP team twice descended on Ecuador during 1991. Parker, Gentry, Louise Emmons (a mammalogist with the Smithsonian Institution) and Robin Foster (a plant ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) inventoried flora and fauna in various forest types along the range of coastal mountains that stretch between the cities of Guayaquil and Esmeraldas. At each site along the range, the biologists on the RAP team sought out a "snap shot" of Ecuadorian species richness.

Well before dawn each day, Theodore Parker entered the forest with his tape recorder, a unidirectional microphone and his educated ears. Traditionally, ornithological census work in the tropics has relied on mist nets, which work well for snagging birds in low vegetation. But, notes Parker, there may be another 150 or so species that only inhabit the forest canopy. With his ears alone, the scientist can cast a wider net, bagging whole communities of bird species that have escaped previous surveys, and ferreting out isolated populations of poorly known species that are threatened with extinction.

While Parker listened for signature bird songs, Gentry set up one-quarter acre transects to sample botanical specimens. Other team members stalked the forest in search of mammals and other wildlife.

As they worked, the scientists clearly could sense that they were in a neck-and-neck race with forest spoilers. Their entry into one "wilderness" area was via a logging road that was in the process of being cleared. At nighttime, trees loosened earlier that day by bulldozers would suddenly come crashing down. "The forest was literally disappearing before our eyes," says Gentry.

So widespread is such habitat loss--particularly in tropical forests--that some researchers like Norman Myers say a major "extinction spasm" of plants and animals is underway, one that may wipe out millions of species around the world. But not all scientists accept that prognosis.

Doubters say it is impossible to predict future extinction rates when we still lack an accurate head count for the number of species on Earth. So far, only about 1.4 million species of plants and-animals have been named by scientists, while some estimates put the total potential number at anywhere from 5 to 30 million.

Yet even without knowing the full measure of potential biocatastrophe, critics would be hard pressed to dispute Myers' contention that scarce conservation resources should be concentrated on areas that appear most vulnerable and that are believed to be profoundly rich in life forms. Save the hot spots, says Myers, and conservation planners will "get a bigger bang for each scarce buck invested."

"A lot of the wildlife efforts to protect endangered species have been rather unsystematic," says Myers. The ecologist notes that huge resources have been devoted to perpetuating an individual species rather than aimed at preserving an entire community of species, like those found in vanishing tropical forest hot spots.

On the other hand, does the hot spots/rapid assessment approach really offer promise in helping to save forest species? Or will it only tell us in excruciating detail what surely is being lost?

Advocates of the approach point to results of a rapid assessment of Bolivia's Alto Madidi, a rain forest along an Amazon River tributary 200 miles north of La Paz. The RAP team's May 1990 visit there revealed that the forest is one of the ten richest sites for bird diversity in the world. Theodore Parker's dawn and dusk forays aurally netted 403 species--nine of them previously unknown in Bolivia. Team members also identified 45 species of mammals, including the exceedingly rare short-eared dog, a species only seldom seen in the wild by scientists. Gentry's transect yielded 204 plant species.

Such information, say RAP proponents, is helping conservationists and Bolivian officials press for assistance to protect the jungle jewel. According to a World Bank official in Washington, D.C., Alto Madidi is "one of the areas being explored for protection" under the bank's new conservation assistance program.

Bolivia, however, is blessed with relatively unsettled forests and a small population. That is not the case in another focus of RAP surveying efforts: Ecuador, where in the western part of the country a fragmented forest is under increasing pressure from poor colonists. Ecuador's population has more than doubled since the late 1950s, and may double again by the year 2025. In a paper published last year, botanist Alwyn Gentry concluded, "Unless adequate protection is given to the remaining forest fragments . . . a major extinction of perhaps 1,260 endemic plant species can be expected in western Ecuador in the very near future."

With such high stakes, conservationists argue that they need as much information as they can get to guide protection efforts. "There are millions of dollars out there for conservation projects, but millions of dollars won't go far," says Parker. When it is time to decide which sites out of many merit preservation, he adds, "The criteria should be biological, and the only way you can do that is to have groups like ours visit areas that in many cases have never been visited."

Over the coming year, the RAP scientists are expected to conduct high-speed surveys of forests in other South American countries, as well as in Africa and Southeast Asia. Even so, notes Parker, "The world is so big, we could have a thousand people doing what we're doing and we'd still overlook things." Fortunately, there is more than one way to save a forest.

Far from what one observer calls RAP's "sexy approach" to conservation, other people are rummaging through tool boxes for ways to patch up and preserve vanishing ecosystems. Often, the work is being conducted by ecocrats testifying in paneled hearing rooms, or sifting through documents in windowless cubicles.

Four years ago, for instance, Conservation International began the implementation of debt-for-nature swaps. In these agreements, an environmental organization buys up a portion of a developing country's international debt; in return, the country's government agrees to put in effect local conservation programs or to preserve wilderness. The agreements also provide some relief from the country's share of an enormous Third World headache: the more than one trillion dollars the world's poorer nations owe banks and development agencies. Servicing that debt has led cash-starved governments to cut funds for environmental programs, and encouraged them to plunder resources.

The National Wildlife Federation has been instrumental in encouraging attention to environmental needs when loans are made by multilateral development banks (like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank). Those development loans channel millions of dollars into poor countries for road projects, dam building, creation of export-agriculture plantations and other useful efforts. But poorly planned projects funded by multilateral lenders have resulted in human colonization of rain forests and in agricultural projects that drained valuable wetlands that were habitat for wildlife.

The Federation helped persuade Congress to hold hearings a few years ago that focused on the environmental impact of multilateral bank-financed projects, leading to some reforms in lending policies. "We're trying to change the economic development models followed in developing countries, to allow for better management of resources and protection of the environment," says Stewart Hudson of NWF's international programs division.

As a result of such efforts, global institutions are beginning to change the way they do business. The World Bank, for example, has established a $1.5 billion trust fund to attack loss of biodiversity as well as problems like global warming. And the World Resources Institute reports that money spent by U.S. private foundations on projects to preserve biodiversity increased 750 percent to a total of $21.4 million--between 1987 and 1989.

Meanwhile, in another program arranged by Conservation International, rural residents in economically hard-pressed northwest Ecuador are harvesting the ivorylike nuts of the tagua palm, which are used to make buttons on clothing manufactured by two U.S. firms. The idea is to create an economic incentive for keeping trees standing rather than logged in one of the hottest of the hot spots. Even on a small scale, such sustainable development projects offer great potential for helping both forests and people.

Scientists like to point out that the greatest reason to preserve tropical forest diversity is its unknown value in yielding future medicines and other products. For proof, they point to the hundreds of food crop species that originated in the tropics and to drugs such as Vincristine, a rosy periwinkle extract that has proved useful in treatment of Hodgkin's disease.

As conservationists search for ways to ease pressure on tropical wild places and wildlife, one thing has become painfully clear. In the face of growing human populations, "parks and preserves," says Norman Myers, are at best "a partial answer."

"Setting up a protected area is a bit like building up an island in the face of the incoming tide," says the inventor of the hot-spots concept. "And today the tide is coming in faster than ever. We have to find ways to deflect it."

Theodore Parker, whose amazing ears net birds during rapid surveys of jungle hot spots, believes that despite today's pressing population and poverty problems, there will come a time in Ecuador and other tropical countries when people will lament lost forest-lands for reasons beyond simple economics. "They'll mourn the loss," says Parker, "purely for aesthetic reasons."

Parker has seen the future and finds it painful to look at. Unless some hot spots of rain forest are set aside quickly, he observes, "There's not going to be any forest left to protect" in places like western Ecuador. And that is why he continues his painstaking work beneath the rain forest canopy. "I'm a hopeful kind of guy," he says, "hopeful that we can still save a lot of important species."

Michael Lipske is a senior editor of this magazine. St. Louis photographer Randall Hyman spent several weeks with the Rapid Assessment Program team in Ecuador's coastal rainforest.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates