Biologists Rate the Rain Forests

To determine conservation priorities, a scientific team sizes up unexplored tropical areas

MORE than just bumper-sticker chic, the ``save the rain forest'' slogan represents a single overarching concern shared by the world's diverse environmental movement. But the save-the-rain-forest consensus raises the urgent scientific question of which rain forests to save.

In a SWAT team-style approach to that scientific dilemma, Conservation International has started a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) to survey unexplored tropical rain-forest areas believed to have the greatest diversity of living species and rank them as world conservation priorities.

The Washington environmental group's pilot expedition this summer dropped four world-renowned field biologists into the uninhabited Alto Madidi of Bolivia, where the Andes mountains meet the Amazonian jungle.

The RAP team was given about a month to catalog as many species as it could. Under the rigor of traditional science, this kind of research can take up to 30 or 40 years, involving the collection of species samples through several changes of season and the independent verification of those samples by other scientists throughout the world.

The draft report of the RAP team's first expedition now being circulated among environmental groups is notable not just for the pioneering of a new ``conservation science,'' but also because the Alto Madidi rivaled the most biodiverse areas known to science. For example, the list of bird species identified there is longer than for any other place in the world.

``RAP is cutting-edge biology that will set the conservation agenda for the next century,'' says Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International. ``We know more about the surface of Mars than about these forests, the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. Now we will be able to show where the plant and animal species are concentrated while there is still time to protect them.''

The struggle to prioritize rain-forest conservation is not new. ``Hotspots,'' ``environmentally sensitive areas,'' ``environmental imperatives,'' and similar designations are given to rain-forest areas by environmental organizations on the basis of accumulated data.

But such specific research as the Rapid Assessment Program is new, says Bob Jenkins, vice president and director of science for the Nature Conservancy. (Conservation International is a breakaway group from the Nature Conservancy.)

``The driving impulse behind their approach is the emergency of getting the most done in the shortest period of time, because the whole world of biodiversity is evaporating,'' Mr. Jenkins says.

Logging or slash-and-burn clearing for farming destroys tropical jungles from Madagascar to Brazil at an estimated pace of 42 million acres a year, according to environmental specialists. These rain forests are believed to harbor two-thirds of all plant and animal species, most of which are still unidentified by scientists.

``... there is a surprising lack of knowledge about what exists and where. If an inventory isn't done now, we'll end up missing [what there is to save],'' says Walt Reid, associate in program and forests and biodiversity for the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental organization.

The World Bank's tropical ecologist, Robert Goodland, says he anticipates RAP data to be ``of great interest, importance, and utility'' to development groups and lending institutions.

He says not enough World Bank money goes to environmental studies. So RAP surveys - even though narrowly focused on animal and plant species - could certainly be important ``when we want to know if a road goes from point A to point B, does it cut through an area of special significance?''

The RAP team's Bolivian expedition this summer was the first of six sponsored by a $750,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation.

Because the accelerated research of the RAP team could be criticized for not being ``real'' science, the use of top field biologists whose expertise could not be quarreled with is key to the program, says Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped develop the RAP concept as chairman of the McArthur Foundation's world environment and resources committee.

The RAP team was led by Theodore A. Parker III, a Louisiana State University ornithologist who can identify close to 3,000 species of birds by their song.

As tropical rain forests go, the Alto Madidi region was expected to be a ``pale'' finger of the Amazon basin and not as biologically diverse as those in Peru or Brazil, say Alwyn H. Gentry, curator at the Missouri Botanical Gardens and a RAP team botanist. But, he says, the biologists were astonished at what they found: the longest recorded list of bird species in the world; unusually large numbers of tapirs and spider monkeys for Latin America; the first scientific sighting in the wild of a rare short-eared dog; numerous sightings of plants, mammals, and birds never before seen in Bolivia.

``What struck me most wasn't plants but tapirs ... to actually see them in broad daylight is rare,'' Dr. Gentry says.

While the Conservation International project is narrowly focused, not taking into account political or social factors that would affect the ultimate question of whether to protect an area studied by RAP teams, it is a concept welcomed by the environmental community.

So it was ironic that the specter of controversy was raised in campfire musings of the RAP team members themselves.

Considering the riches of the Alto Madidi, Gentry says ``the four biologists were wondering in fact what would happen to internal politics [of Conservation International as well as the environmental movement in general] if we spoke strongly and said this is better probably than the Beni.''

The Beni Biosphere Reserve is a Bolivian park created by Conservation International and the Bolivian government in the first debt-for-nature swap and has been a major focus of publicity and fund-raising.

``A lot of international conservation sites have been chosen opportunistically and not for biological reasons,'' explains Brent Bailey, Conservation International coordinator of biological programs. Often the difficulties of setting up a protected tract of land - from buying it to politically assuring its protection - mean that conservation groups cannot be choosey. But RAPs, he says, can be models for how to find more valuable areas to protect. New finds like the Alto Madidi should not diminish the importance of conserving other areas too, he says.

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