EMERGING THREATS AND RESEARCH CHALLENGES IN THE TROPICS
Speaker: William F. Laurance (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Balboa, Panama)
Date: Thu, 14th May, 2009
Host: Prof Richard Corlett
I will summarize several new or emerging threats to tropical ecosystems and consider the research challenges these raise. The drivers of tropical forest destruction and key perils to biodiversity have changed over the past two decades. Industrial drivers of forest conversion—such as logging, large-scale soy and cattle farming, oil-palm plantations, and oil and gas development—have escalated in importance in recent decades, buoyed by rapid globalization, economic growth, and rising standards of living in developing nations. Biofuels are likely to grow rapidly as a driver of future forest destruction. Climate change has emerged as a potentially serious cause of change in the tropics, and some fauna, such as amphibians, are being decimated by emerging pathogens. In general, old-growth forests are vanishing rapidly and being replaced by fragmented, secondary, and logged forests.
These evolving threats are creating an urgent need for new research. For example, we know far too little about how well secondary and degraded habitats will sustain tropical biodiversity. Much is unknown about how climate change will affect tropical biota at high and low elevations, or how this will interact with ongoing land-use change. Further, we have only the most rudimentary idea of how climate change will affect tropical precipitation—a crucial deficit given the acute sensitivity of tropical forests to drought and fire. Information on environmental synergisms is meager at best. Finally, we need to develop new conservation strategies to deal with the increasingly industrial drivers of deforestation. I will highlight these and other issues on the horizon of tropical conservation science.