This project involves learning about the types of forests that grow on Earth and selecting one type of forest to describe in detail in terms of the climate, what types of trees grow there and what species of native plants and animals are threatened. It also involves learning about the ways in which this type of forest is being conserved or destroyed.
As described in the Forests and Madagascar and Other Islands chapters, forests harbor the largest number of endangered species of all habitats. Uncontrolled logging, especially of old-growth forests, has threatened the survival of thousands of native plants and animals. Forests are a crucial factor in maintaining the planet's oxygen supply and supplying moisture to the atmosphere. By absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, forests reduce pollution and global warming. Their roots also anchor soils, preventing erosion, and store moisture that gradually seeps into rivers and streams so that they flow year-round, even in droughts.
The world land area covered by forests has been retreating for centuries. Although there are still extensive boreal forests in northern Canada and Siberia, and tropical forest still covers most of the Amazon, forests are being logged at a fast pace. The increase in human populations has resulted in growing numbers of people cutting forests for firewood or to clear land for agriculture. In many parts of the world, forests with extraordinary diversity of life have been nearly eliminated or are in the process of being destroyed. Central Africa's ancient rainforests are being logged for the largest trees, hundreds of years old, and their wildlife, including endangered chimpanzees and Gorillas, is being slaughtered to sell in bushmeat markets. Tropical rainforests, especially those growing in lowland areas, are the most threatened type of forest. These forests harbor the largest diversity of wildlife and plants and are, therefore, most in need of protection. In the United States, entire forest ecosystems have become endangered, and many species of native trees have become threatened, some from diseases of foreign origin, others from logging and development. Examples of threatened forest ecosystems in North America are the native pine forests of the Southeastern United States, the old-growth temperate rainforests of the Northwest and the old-growth forests of the East.
Many species of trees, including the stately American Elm and the American Chestnut, have been decimated by exotic species of fungi. These trees once numbered in the billions. The American Elm has declined and disappeared from many parts of the East, and the American Chestnut is almost extinct throughout its range in eastern North America. It once made up a large portion of the eastern hardwood forests. The wildlife of these forests has lost much of its diversity, as the Gray Wolf, Red Wolf, Mountain Lion, and their prey, the Elk, Eastern Bison and, in northern woods, the Caribou were all hunted to the last animal. Rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, with their towering American Redwoods and Sequoias, Western Hemlock, Red Cedar and other conifers, have been reduced to about 5 to 10 percent of their original range as a result of logging and development. Their wildlife, likewise, is under siege, and many species, including the Grizzly Bear, Fisher, Lynx, Gray Wolf, Northern Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet, are absent or extremely rare.
Endangered trees and wildlife of temperate forests in South America include the massive Chilean Larch or Alerce, which can grow for 4,000 years and reach sizes almost as great as the Sequoias of California, the world's most massive trees. Alerces have been decimated, cut for their valuable wood, along with other trees in these forests--species which grew on Earth prior to the appearance of dinosaurs. Vast forests of beeches, for example, and primitive conifers covered millions of square miles in Chile and Argentina, but only a fraction remain, the rest logged to make way for agriculture and livestock. The wildlife of these forests, from the world's smallest deer, the Pudu, to the Andean Bear, is threatened. Likewise, the temperate rainforests of New Zealand and eastern Australia have been greatly reduced, threatening kiwis of several species and other unique wildlife.
Tropical forests of many types, from lowland rainforests to dry deciduous forests and, in higher elevations, montane cloud forests, grow in a belt around the Earth's tropical latitudes. They teem with millions of species of insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The last 5 percent of Brazil's Atlantic coastal forest harbors South America's greatest primate diversity, with species ranging in size from tiny lion marmosets, weighing only a few ounces, to the Muriqui, or Woolly Spider Monkey, the continent's largest primate. All are now threatened with extinction. Madagascar's tropical forests echo with the calls of 33 species of lemurs, charming and fascinating primates that exist nowhere else but in these forests that are being cut for farm plots and charcoal. In Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests, literally hundreds of kinds of colorful parrots fly in noisy flocks, each with its own ecological niche of food type and habitat. Almost one-third of all parrots are now threatened.
A large percentage of tropical forests have been destroyed over the past century, with some areas, such as the Philippines, Thailand, West Africa, Andean countries, the Caribbean and, most recently, parts of Indonesia, experiencing almost total deforestation. The losses here have been dramatic, as Orangutans, Tigers, rare birds and two species of primitive rhinos add to these countries' endangered lists. The countries with the largest numbers of endangered birds, Indonesia and Brazil, have lost, or are in the process of losing, large tracts of tropical rainforest. Entire ecosystems are collapsing in the process. The great variety of fig trees of Southeast Asia depend on hornbills to distribute their seeds, but these birds are fast disappearing. Pollinating species like bats, small primates and birds are also in sharp decline as the rainforests are destroyed. Many are found only in a limited area, surviving in the remnants of these forests.
On the positive side, many large preserves have been set aside in South America to protect this diversity, and conservationists are working in other parts of the world to protect parks and help establish new reserves to prevent massive extinctions in these forests. Paper recycling and using substitutes for wood-based products are also conserving trees.
o Examine as many of the books listed below, showing the great beauty and diversity of forests, as possible. These include Jungles; The Rainforests, A Celebration; The Life and Mysteries of the Jungle; The Living Wild; Hotspots. Earth's Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions; North America's Rainforest. The Endangered Paradise; Living Planet. Preserving Edens of the Earth; Ancient Forests. A Celebration of North America's Old-growth Wilderness; and The Enchanted Canopy. A Journey of Discovery to the Last Unexplored Frontier, the Roof of the World's Rainforests. Also, read books on particular forest species, such as butterflies, birds, primates, bats or insects. Many are listed in the Books and Publications section. See films listed below and in the Video section of this book on forests, particularly threatened ones in Madagascar and other parts of the world, as well as films of endangered forest wildlife. This introduction is intended to create enthusiasm and curiosity as well as an appreciation of the wealth of plants and animals that are at stake as old-growth forests are destroyed.
o Select a forest from the list below to study its status and threatened trees and wildlife.
- United States southeastern Long-leaf Pine forests
- North American eastern hardwood forests
- North American temperate rainforests
- South American temperate rainforests
- Brazilian forests of Atlantic coast
- New Zealand or Australian temperate rainforests
- Madagascar tropical rainforest
- Hawaiian tropical rainforest
- Mascarene tropical forests
- West African tropical rainforests
- Andean tropical rainforests and cloud forests
- Central American cloud forests
- Colombian rainforests
- Caribbean tropical forests
- East African tropical forests
- Indonesian rainforests
- Philippine rainforests
- Indian montane forests of the Ghat region
- Himalayan forests
- Chinese tropical forests
o Read about this type of forest in The Endangered Species Handbook and in references listed in the Forests chapter and the Books and Publications section. Also consult the Internet.
o Describe the original extent of this forest several hundred years ago, and the present extent. (Collins 1990 and Mittermeier 1999a, cited below, are excellent references.) Explain how it has become threatened. For example, some forests have been gradually whittled away by cutting for firewood or land clearance, while others have been cut by corporate logging companies or government programs to establish large-scale agricultural farms. Still others have been officially conserved but, through failures in enforcement or misguided policies, their wildlife and trees have been lost.
o What species of wildlife and plants or trees have become endangered as a result of the destruction of these forests? Which species are unique to that forest region? Describe them.
o Select an animal or plant species that is threatened with extinction and write a short report about it, using the criteria in the project, "Profile of an Endangered Species." It can be a type of butterfly, orchid, ant, bird or mammal, for example. Write about the species in the context of its forest habitat, whether its habitat is being protected, and other threats to it that may include pollution, trade or competition with exotic species. As source material, consult this book, Threatened Birds of the World, Walker's Mammals of the World, and other references cited here or in the Books and Publications section of this book.
o By consulting books, such as Hotspots and other books listed below, list the threats to the forest you are describing and what is being done to protect the forest and its wildlife.
o Read the Forests chapter for information on the use of plants, such as kenaf, to make paper and building houses with little or no lumber. Discuss the role these measures could have in conserving forests. Write organizations, such as Earth Island Institute, for information.
Books and Publications