The Most Endangered Major Tropical Ecosystem


Professor of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The rain forest is not the most threatened of the major tropical forest types. The tropical dry forests hold this honor. When the Spaniards arrived in the Western Hemisphere, there were 550,000 square kilometers of dry forest (approximately five times the size of Guatemala, or the size of France) on the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica (an area extending north from Panama to western Mexico). Today, only 0.09% of that region (approximately 480 square kilometers) has official conservation status, and less than 2% is sufficiently intact to attract the attention of the traditional conservationist. If there is to be a conserved neotropical (i.e., Western Hemisphere) dry forest wildland large enough to maintain the organisms and the habitats that were present when the Spaniards arrived, and if it is to be large enough to be easily maintained and thus a project willingly undertaken and managed into the indefinite future by the society in which it is imbedded, then we will have to grow it (Janzen, 1986a).

The story is the same for the dry tropical regions of Australia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and major parts of South America. The cause of the severe habitat loss is straightforward. Dry forest is easily cleared with fire, and woody regeneration in fields or pastures is easily suppressed with fire. Furthermore, fire does not stay where you put it; many areas are unintentionally cleared. The farmer is also aided by the severe dry season; it suppresses pest and weed populations, facilitates the use of fire as a tool to clean up pastures and fields, and slows soil degradation caused by continuous rain and farming. Many tropical dry forest regions even have good soils; they are downwind of volcanic mountain ranges or are situated on alluvia.

What are the conditions in a tropical dry forest (cf. Hartshorn, 1983; Janzen, 1986a; Murphy and Lugo, 1986)? Its 4- to 7-month rain-free dry season is sufficiently

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement