Most experts agree that we are losing upward of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that, although pinning down exact numbers is nearly impossible. We are also losing some 135 plant, animal, and insect species every day–or some 50,000 species a year.
According to researcher and writer Rhett Butler, who runs the Mongabay.com Web site, tropical rainforests are incredibly rich ecosystems that play a key role in the basic functioning of the planet. They help maintain the climate by regulating atmospheric gases and stabilizing rainfall, and provide many other important ecological functions.
Rainforests are also home to some 50 percent of the world’s species, Butler reports, “making them an extensive library of biological and genetic resources.” Environmentalists also point out that a quarter of our modern pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, but less than 1 percent of the trees and plants in the tropics have been tested for curative properties. So, we don’t really know what we may be losing.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, overall tropical deforestation rates this decade are 8.5 percent higher than during the 1990s. While this figure pertains to all forests in the world’s tropics, researchers believe the loss of primary (wildest and most diverse) tropical rainforest has increased by as much as 25 percent since the 1990s.
Deforestation rates are on the rise, mostly due to activities such as commercial logging, agriculture, cattle ranching, dam building, and mining, but also due to subsistence agriculture and collection of fuel wood.
However, Joseph Wright of the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute says the tropics now have more protected land than in recent history, and believes that large areas of tropical forest will remain intact through 2030 and beyond: “We believe that the area covered by tropical forest will never fall to the exceedingly low levels that are often predicted, and that extinction will threaten a smaller proportion of tropical forest species than previously predicted.”
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