Three reasons why protecting species means protecting tropical forests

Alex Morrice

The focus of this year’s Earth Day is ‘Protect Our Species’, highlighting the diversity of life on Earth. Many scientists now believe we are in the midst of a sixth great ‘mass extinction’ — the first one caused by human activity, with asteroids or planet-wide natural disasters having caused the other five. What have forests got to do with this?

Tropical forests are disappearing at a staggering pace, with approximately one football pitch being lost every second. Ending large-scale tropical deforestation, the focus of our work, is of crucial importance for reducing the effects of climate change and for supporting the livelihoods of billions of people. Tropical forests are also irreplaceable refuges for many unique species.

1. Nowhere on land is more biodiverse

Tropical forests contain vast amounts of biodiversity. In Europe, there are 50 different tree species north of the Alps. In the tropics, however, even a small patch of land can contain hundreds of different species. This diversity is reflected in the uniqueness of tropical forest species as well as the simple numbers.

The cloud forests of Ecuador, the forests of Colombia and the Upper Amazon contain hundreds of species, from the tiniest invertebrates to big cats and birds of prey, which are found nowhere else.

One unique species found in Latin America is the harpy eagle, the largest rainforest eagle and one of the largest surviving birds of prey. The harpy eagle is special because it needs large areas of unbroken rainforest to survive.

If we are to protect species in their natural habitats, and not relegate them to surviving only in zoos, we must protect tropical forests.

Harpy eagle photo taken by Carlos Henrique Almeida, used under a Creative Commons license.

2. There are so many species we haven’t even discovered

Another reason to protect tropical forests comes from those species we do not even know about yet. The fossil record, and specimens in museums, can teach us about plants and animals we have driven to extinction before they were even identified — so-called ‘Linnean extinctions’.

Estimates vary on how much of the Earth’s biodiversity we have identified, but it is generally accepted there is significantly more to learn than what we have already found out. This is exciting, on the one hand, but it also means we risk ‘destroying the book of life without reading it’.

With the breath-taking biodiversity of tropical forests, the low level of our knowledge so far about what those forests contain, and the rate at which we are destroying these forests, we may well be destroying a plant which could lead us to the cure for a major disease, or an animal key to regulating carbon cycles — completely unknowingly.

3. Extinction is gradual

Long before a species is fully extinct, with its last member having died, it generally becomes ‘functionally’ extinct, meaning that it is present in such small numbers that it no longer plays the role within the environment that the species has previously played.

Species of rhino with single-digit populations are a clear example of functional extinction, but it can be reached when sizeable populations still remain. For instance, some populations of flying foxes (also known as fruit bats) have become functionally extinct long before they became rare, as large numbers are needed to provide effective seed dispersal.

Many vulnerable species play key roles in providing ecosystem services. For example, larger bees, such as the tropical carpenter bee, are more likely to become extinct or endangered than bees in general, and in many forests, they have an essential pollination role. If they were lost, this pollination would be, too.

This means that protecting species is about much more than preventing the last individuals from dying. We need to keep populations high, as we do not know when most species will reach the crucial point when they become functionally extinct.

We do know, however, that more species can survive in larger ‘patches’ of forest. This means that to protect species, we must maintain these patches.

Single-species conservation efforts, while important short-term interventions in some cases, cannot restore functioning ecosystems — only protecting entire forests can do this, which in turn protects the species that live within them. There is little value in keeping a species alive when it cannot ever be returned to its natural habitat. To ensure the richness of life on Earth is protected, and its values both material and intrinsic are supported, forests as a whole must be conserved.

How to end this deforestation and protect our species

The majority of tropical forest loss is driven by the unsustainable production of a handful of commodities. Deforestation is hidden in our chocolate, our toothpaste, and even our investments and pensions. Tackling these drivers of deforestation, and making the transition to sustainable production, holds the key to reducing or ending extinction in some of the planet’s most unique ecosystems. Companies, governments and financial institutions have the power to make this change. Visit our Forest 500 website to see how companies and financial institutions are performing, and www.globalcanopy.org for more information about tropical forests and how we are working to protect them.