Nature's (Crumbling) Cathedral - The Tropical Rain Forest

by Michael L. Smith

It's quiet. Very quiet. But it isn't silent and it's far from dead. Listen closely--a faint rustle of leaves high overhead, a bird calls, some strange insect punctuates the air with an alien sound. And the colors! So many greens and browns; with an exclamation of velvety red or yellow or white scattered around; just enough to keep it interesting. The air is warm, humid, sometimes stifling; it stirs very little here. Looking more closely, one realizes that there is tremendous activity all around. This is a unique environment; highly fragile in the hands of man and extremely important to the survival of man.

One hundred years from now, historians may be compelled to refer to the second half of the 20th century as that brief period of time when much of the earth's biological diversity was eradicated in the name of survival, progress and profits. Paleontologists speak of the end of the dinosaur age as a period of massive extinctions, yet during that period--despite the assistance of asteroids and volcanic dust clouds--the planet lost an average of only one species every 1,000 years. Today, human activities are exterminating plant and animal species at a rate of 1,000 each year. By the end of this century, this rate is predicted to reach 10,000 species per year--more than one species every hour!

Unbelievable? These figures are the accepted estimates of some of the world's most eminent biological researchers. Man is on the way to destroying a quarter of all the species of plants and animals that live on the earth today. Most of the species are insects, but they are joined by a large variety of birds, mammals and reptiles, and by thousands of species of plants.

The reason for these bleak predictions is the loss of habitat, due, primarily, to deforestation of the world's tropical rain forests, the areas we commonly think of as "jungles." Tropical rain forests are home to more than half of all the species on earth. What is even more amazing is that five out of six of those tropical species have not yet been studied, or even seen by scientists.

So, the tropical rain forests are home to a lot of bugs and flowers. But what do they do for us? It is true that they cover only about 7% of the earth's surface, but they are the largest repository of genetic resources for the support of human welfare. These genetic resources already make many contributions to our daily lives. We benefit from tropical forest plants with our breakfast fruit, our morning cup of coffee and our healthy snack of roasted peanuts. We also profit from tropical forest species each time we use a deodorant, an after-shave lotion or a lipstick, each time we read a glossy magazine, each time we polish our nails or furniture, and each time we pull on our jogging shoes.

We enjoy these many diverse products even though only one plant species in a hundred has been examined for its economic applications. So, when biologists say that during the next 20 years, human activities will destroy hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals in these forests, how many new medicines, food crops and natural insecticides are we destroying? We simply don't know.

It is important that we continue to learn from the world's foremost tropical ecologists--the indigenous people who have made these jungles their home for thousands of years. We have only the slightest idea of what these people could share with us if we would take the time to learn from them. The list of what they have already contributed is certainly impressive. For example, among the tropical forest plants they have introduced us to are cacao, Brazil nuts, sweet potatoes, tobacco, avocados, vanilla, coffee, mangos, papaya, bananas and sugar cane. Other materials they have taught us to use include gum arabic for ink, the glue for postage stamps and various pharmaceuticals; latexes for chewing gum and golf balls; and contraceptives.

However, the consequences of tropical rain forest destruction are more severe than just the extinction of beautiful birds and the loss of new drugs and new food plants. Floods, landslides and drought can all be triggered by the denuding of these areas. Erosion robs the land of its productive topsoil and carries it to rivers and lakes, contaminating them. Watersheds disappear and rainfall decreases creating a shortage of fresh water. The buffering and moderating effects of the tropical rain forests disappear; weather patterns around the world change.

People must learn how to live with these natural storehouses; how to unlock and utilize their secrets. Several organizations worldwide are engaged in programs to educate and aid in the protection and salvation of the earth's tropical rain forests. Costa Rica has set a fine example with its network of national parks and reserves comprising 25% of the total national territory, but these microcosms are doomed to solitary existences and slow death as the surrounding, unprotected forests are destroyed.

Many of these existing protected areas are too small or lack the necessary altitudinal diversity to protect genetically viable populations of many threatened species they contain. Several conservation projects in Costa Rica have dealt with this problem on a park-specific level by increasing the size of parks and incorporating elevational variations into them. Another project, a joint effort of US-AID, Wildlife Conservation International and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is working to try to link existing and planned parks and reserves in a nearly continuous macrocorridor from southern Mexico to Columbia. The project goal is to maintain the three million-year-old biological land bridge through Central America, responsible for the high biological diversity of the region. In addition, much greater attention is now being placed on landscape ecology and biosphere reserve approaches to the management of natural areas.

What can you do to help? First, educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about this fascinating environment. In Costa Rica that is very easy to do. The advent of ecotourism in the last few years has opened up vast areas to tourists in an attempt to educate and entertain visitors in a way that is non-destructive to the environment. The ecotours you participate in here in Costa Rica will not only be entertaining and eye opening, but will teach you about what we consider our greatest natural resource, and one that we must preserve for our future and the futures of our children and yours. Many of our tour companies offer trips to all corners of Costa Rica allowing the tourist complete immersion in the jungle. There are several excellent places to visit and see up close what it is that we in Costa Rica are trying so desperately to save.

With our efforts and your enlightened help these natural cathedrals will stand as living monuments, preserving a sizable remnant of the rich and diverse natural endowment and cultural heritage of our tiny region.


Tropical forests are home to more than half of all the species on earth.

Over half the rain that falls on a tropical rain forest is water derived from the forest itself.

Five out of six tropical species have never been seen by scientists. This amounts to at least 2-1/2 million unknown species.

One hectare of rain forest will lose about one kilogram of topsoil per year to erosion. That same hectare, cleared of forest, can lose up to 34 tons of topsoil per year.

Half of Costa Rica's deforestation has occurred since 1950.

Costa Rica has 500 resident bird species; four times as many as in the temperate forests of eastern U.S.

Tropical forest ecosystems have been in existence for at least 50 million years. Within a period of half a century they will be eliminated. The destruction period? One-millionth part of their history.

There are 8,000 plant species in Costa Rica. Great Britain has 1,433.

Approximately 12% of the earth's surface (5 billion acres) was originally covered with tropical vegetation. An estimated 50% of this vegetation has been destroyed.

The treetop regions (the canopy) of tropical forests foster up to 40% of the earth's inventory of species.