Majority of protected tropical forests “empty” due to hunting

By Jeremy Hance,

Protected areas in the world’s tropical rainforests are absolutely essential, but one cannot simply set up a new refuge and believe the work is done, according to a new paper in Bioscience. Unsustainable hunting and poaching is decimating tropical forest species in the Amazon, the Congo, Southeast Asia, and Oceana, leaving behind “empty forests,” places largely devoid of any mammal, bird, or reptile over a few pounds. The loss of such species impacts the whole ecosystems, as plants lose seed dispersers and the food chain is unraveled.

“In many parts of the tropics, hunting is now the biggest threat to tropical biodiversity,” writes the paper’s author, tropical ecologist Rhett Harrison. “There is a need to acknowledge the unpalatable but undeniable fact that current tropical conservation efforts are failing.”

Currently around 18 percent of the world’s tropical forests are under some level of protection, a statistic that is seen as a measure of success by conservationists, however hunting and poaching remain rampant. Although most severe in Southeast Asia and Africa, concerns are also rising in the Amazon as well.

Harrison argues that small protected areas and those that do not possess big charismatic species—such as jaguars or elephants—are especially vulnerable to poaching activities due to long neglect from conservationists and policy-makers.

Smaller reserves (1000–10,000 hectares) tend to be regarded as being of low conservation priority. However, such reserves are a critical component of protected-area networks in tropical regions with relatively little original forest cover remaining; they make up a substantial proportion of the habitat and biogeographic diversity, and often the only examples of species-rich lowland forest,” Harrison explains.Poaching of big animals such as elephants, tigers, and rhinos often make the most news, but Harrison says smaller, less well-known animals are just as vital to the maintenance of the ecosystem. Hunters often target fruiting trees for their quarry killing off frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds and mammals. These frugivorous species are key to dispersing the seeds of “large-seeded plants, which include many of the slower-growing canopy trees,” Harrison notes. The loss of such species in a forest could change the entire plant community. Less slow-growing, big trees may even lessen a forest’s capacity to store carbon and other important ecosystem services.What’s become known as the “empty forests syndrome” has been propelled by a number of issues: lack of funding for parks, dearth of wildlife rangers, and new roads and development projects opening up once inaccessible rainforests.

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