Bright spot in Biodiversity

Population dynamics lectures emphasized that a population must have sufficient resources to remain at equilibrium. Conservation to "save a species" whose existence is threatened by habitat destruction must examine food chains and energy flows of the ecosystem that the species occupies. Fragmentation, for example, can disrupt a population's access to survival essentials.

An article entitled "Biodiversity's Bright Spot," published 18 Nov 2009 in Nature, explores the plight of the golden lion tamarin highlights successful initiatives of conservation. The scene: the Atlantic Forest of Brazil that stretches from the eastern tip of Uruguay through Brazil's population centers to the small state of Rio Grande Do Norte. The problem: human "development" and population growth have caused a high rate of deforestation in Brazil's history. Portuguese colonizers arriving in 1500 cut so many trees that Queen Maria the Pious of Portugal called for measures to stop. Sugarcane cultivation, logging and ranching, as well as coastal oil exploration, more recently fragmented the forest.

The forest is now "badly broken up" ([]). Yet its fragments remain hotspots of biodiversity. The range of elevations and climates that ranges more than that of the Amazon basin still supports an estimated 20,000 plant species, 8,000 of which are thought to be endemic, and 2,155 vertebrate species, 940 of which are thought to be endemic. These numbers might be lower had there not been concerted science and policy action to protect the forest and its golden lion tamarin.

National legislation began as early as 1965, when the Brazilian government revised the national forest code, requiring landowners to preserve areas around rivers and forests on steep slopes and mandating that 20 percent of any rural property in the Atlantic Forest be maintained as a reserve. It resurged in the 1980s and 1990s when biodiversity and endangered species became prioritized on international environmental agendas. Further legislation was passed to promote the conservation of resources and ecosystems. A 2006 law targeted Atlantic Forest protection by demarcating its extent and its ecosystems and requiring special permission to conduct damaging activities, and by prohibiting the removal of vegetation in habitats of endangered species. Watershed protection, erosion control and formation of corridors were also provided for in that most recent law.

But clearly law has been no magic bullet. Lack of economic incentive to comply and weak enforcement have enabled severe and frequent violations throughout the decades. An environment minister-turned-senator, Marina Silver, has worked against some powerful teams of industry and landowners who favor less forest use regulation. Civil society groups such as WWF and the Golden Tamarin Association have likewise been critical in reforestation that has dramatically increased forested area and the population of golden tamarins from 150 in the 1970s to a current 1,500. The golden lion tamarin's survival is also thanks to zoos around the world, which have exploited the golden lion tamarin's ability to breed in captivity. Now, when the head of Conservation International visits the Atlantic Forest, he exclaims "Thank God!" The rebound and slowed deforestation rate are exemplary. "The Atlantic forest shows that it's not a hopeless cause in these high-priority areas," he tells the author of the Nature article.

What stems this success? Senator Silver highlights decentralization or greater discretion of the municipality as a strategy for better conservation. (CPRs, anyone?) Local government leadership such as that at in PetrĂ³polis, a city 70 km from Rio, can converge with the expertise of engineers and a federal protection decree so that a river sews together fragments of city-edge forest. Partnerships between researchers and local landowners that provide protected habitats for the golden lion tamarin are helpful as well. And overall, a balance of emphasis on species protection and ecosystem services may direct an integrated approach and analysis.

The recovery of the golden lion tamarin continues. A coalition of private sector, research institutions and NGOs aim to double the area of Atlantic Forest by 2050. As economic pressures also persist, it will be interesting to observe the evolution and diversity of the conservation groups themselves.

Hungry for more? See the Discovery Channel quick video on the monkeys and their mealworm delicacy.

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