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Thoughts on Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Conservation (by Zinan Cheng, volunteer)

5 September 2011

Heliconia rostrata flower

The rainforest thrives on cutthroat competition. The valued human ethos of cooperation, empathy, and harmony have little place in the relationships that occur in the wild. The biodiversity here is high because of the combative relationship constantly going on between species which keeps any one species from dominating. The most colorful and deadly species have arisen due to stringent mating and predatory pressures. Surely even the most mutually beneficial relationships last for only as long as is evolutionarily beneficial. Take, for example, the Triplaris or Tangarana tree, which relies on a species of fire-ant for protection. As soon as the tree reaches the canopy (its ultimate goal as a tree, due to the high light levels up there), it stops producing food for the ants and the colony slowly dies. We would like to think that the tropics are just a lush reservoir for life, providing a surplus of nutrients for an ever-growing population of species. But in reality, the quick nutrient cycling forces and fast reproductive cycles selects for the most efficient exploitation of one’s niche. The species in tropical regions adapt relatively quickly to changing circumstances, spreading their phylogenetic fingers to reach every last available patch of available energy.


Enter Homo sapiens (i.e. you and me). We seem to have won the adaptability race everywhere on earth, and the tropics are no exception. Endlessly fascinated with advantages that the earth can provide to us, we search endlessly for the caloric, medicinal, economic, and recreational resources that are found in the tropics. Even the best efforts of lianas and heliconias are no match against our machetes and trampling feet! We claim these niches as our own, and fight (very effectively) against every competitor. Surely if the most unforgiving natural environment in the world cannot stop our onslaught, then we have won. What then, compels us to set up vast reserves to protect areas of rainforest? Perhaps the scientists who toil in the field have seen the undiscovered wealth of knowledge and secondary compounds that natural forces have refined over eons. But perhaps we will develop the chemical know-how to replicate and improve on these useful natural remedies in the future. Is there value beyond what humans can use and exploit, no matter what degree of reverence we hold for the rainforest? Must we protect tracts of uninhabited forest to let nature evolve in hopes of producing the next set of cancer cures? These matters seem trivial to me. In practice, to argue the value of a thing is to argue what human gains can be procured from the thing. With our generation span of about 25 or so years, the short term benefits will always far outweigh any long term musings of value. With this in mind, I respect the efforts of all who try to make the case for the rainforest in the short term (including Fauna Forever), for these people are the realists that keep the general public from ravaging these rare pockets of biodiversity. However, I do not think that the scramble to attribute human value should be the only line of reasoning to rainforest conservation.


Leaf-cutter ants doing their thing

I believe that it is our capacity for empathy that instils respect for wild nature in this vast forest. I have experienced a strange form of pity and hope while watching the life stages of animals and plants play out in the forest. A baby sloth who was dropped at birth desperately cries for its mother whilst hemorrhaging to death amongst hundreds of juvenile plants that will never see the light of the canopy. Less than five meters away stands the giant buttress roots of canopy emergent trees that have planted firmly on the thin soil, if only for a few decades, before they too join the rainforest soil when they are felled by the wind. A feeling of awe overcomes me, for each human being also grows and withers with the passage of time. This respect for life might come from any serious contemplation of nature but is especially evident in a tropical rainforest, where the life cycles of organisms great and small are continuous, sometimes rapid, sometimes slow, but disturbingly obvious. Regularly, we are so caught up in the rhythm of our own pursuits that our short time on earth seems infinite. In the forest, however, one cannot help but notice the majestic journey of life and death. In the tremendous effort of every life-form in the forest, I find beauty in the purest form. It is this effort that thrives in every strand of DNA, every coalition of cells, all members of a single species, a genus, an order, a kingdom, etc. that defines life. It is this drive, this endless pursuit of acceptance in one’s environment that unifies the souls of all living organisms on this earth. The struggle of life and virility over death should be preserved within the damp green heat of the forest so that we can watch the full magnificence of life unfold before our eyes.

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