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Scientists must offer solutions for conserving tropical forests in a rapidly changing world

As human populations and their impacts on the world increase, tropical forests are changing in many different ways. Forests are being cleared, burned, logged, fragmented, and overhunted and an unprecedented pace, and they are also being altered in insidious ways by global climatic and atmospheric changes. "The evidence for global effects suggests that a massive reorganization of the structure and dynamics of tropical forests is already underway" writes ecologist S. Joseph Wright, "The tropics support over half of all species and over two-thirds of all people. Without an appropriate commitment from the scientific community, the two are unlikely to continue to coexist," concludes the scientist.

Tropical forest landscapes are changing rapidly in the eyes of scientists working on tropical monitoring plots around the globe, while human populations and their economic activities grow. Old-growth forests become agricultural lands, degraded land is abandoned, urbanization intensifies, and the populations of tropical countries will increase by two billion over the next 25 years.

But what is happening in protected areas? Globally, 18% of all tropical and subtropical moist forest and 9% of all tropical dry forests are nominally protected by governments. Increasingly, even these areas seem to be bearing the indelible marks of human activity.

On Barro Colorado Island (BCI) administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in the Republic of Panama, the old-growth forest has escaped fire and agriculture for at least 1500 years. STRIs Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS) has repeatedly censused all steams one centimeter of diameter or more at 1.3 m height in a 50-hectare plot every five years since 1985. Wright notes that the aboveground biomass on BCI was almost constant since the first census. But lianas increased substantially (from 9% to 13% of all leaf biomass) between 1986 and 2002.

In another protected area, the Kibale
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Contact: S. Joseph Wright
wrightj@si.edu
507-212-8000
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
2-Sep-2005


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