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James R Serach

Type of Activity:

  • Group project
  • Role play

Target Audience:

  • Biology
  • Environmental Studies (Gr. 10 through 12)

This exercise helps students understand the complexity of resource, land use, and conservation decisions.



  • Advance reading of background papers (1 to 2 hours)
  • Photocopy map and assignment (10 minutes)

Class time:

  • 4 to 5 introductory lectures/discussions on: island biogeography; forest fragmentation; edge effects and corridors; relate island theory with fragmentation. NATURE video: Amazonia: A Burning Questions.
  • The students have two weeks to complete this project.

Project Summary:

As environmental issues more and more become hot political issues, there is a growing need for our students to become better informed. However, environmental issues are deceivingly complex, regardless of whether they are global problems such as tropical deforestation or local problems like toxic waste in landfills or loss of wetland. Unfortunately, students rarely learn that environmental problems are so complex, that they are not the result of random acts of malice against nature, though often portrayed in this light. Environmental destruction can be driven by external constraints and often unequal compromises result in poor solutions. In order to gain better understanding of the numerous factors involved, students need experience making the kinds of decisions made by politicians, policy makers, and land use planners.

An optimally designed biological reserve system requires the integration and application of knowledge from several sources. Students are given a map of a region of some tropical country with a list of important geographic and biological information about the areas; a set of specific need, limitations, and governmental objectives are also provided. Each student is assigned a specific role and is placed within a larger planning group. The individual must see that his or her specific needs are addressed. The group task is to design and locate a set of conservation areas that best accommodates as many of the stated needs and priorities as possible. The group must present, explain, and defend their plan to the class or discussion.


  • Map (11x17)
  • Scissors
  • Readings
  • 5 x 7 index card
  • List of Roles
  • Colored pencils


Local IndiansSettlers from the overcrowded city
RancherAmerican ecotourism operator
BirdwatcherScientist (entomologist)
Government officialLogging company official
Peace Corps volunteerEthnobotanist from pharmaceutical company

Teacher Notes:

The 5 x 7 index card represents 25% of the area of the map. Students can experiment with different shapes and sizes in designing each reserve by cutting up this card and placing them on the map. Different colors can be used to differentiate between different kinds of reserves or zones of use within reserves (buffer, research-only, and core zones). Evaluation is based upon content (adequacy of design; good defense; priority; feasibility of solution; etc.) and presentation (ability to answer questions; organization; appearance).

Suggested Background Reading Materials


"No reserve is an island," by J. Koh.
Wildlife Conservation, Sept./Oct. 1993. Pp. 74 through 76.

"Values and shortcomings of small reserves", by C. Shafer.
BioScience 4 5(2):80 through 88. 1995

"Clear-cutting the tropical rainforest in a bold attempt to salvage it," by S. Maze.
Smithsonian, April 1998. Pp. 107 through 116.

"The preservation paradox," by W. Allman.
U.S. News & World Report, April 25, 1988. Pp. 53 & 54.


Tropical Rainforest, by A. Newman. Facts on File. 1990. Charts and tables about different kinds of conservation areas and area needs of species.

Saving Tropical Forests, by J. Gradwohl and R. Greenberg. Island Press. 1988.
Background information on forest reserves and case studies.

Preparatory reading on island biogeography from any college ecology text.

Student notes:

You are provided with a sketch map of a tropical area along with some background information and data relevant to this particular region. The government has decided that 25% of this area must be conserved.

TOTAL AREA OF THE MAP=1000km x 750 km
(750,000 km2)

  • Design and locate these conservation areas (reserves) to best suit the needs indicated.
  • Use your vast knowledge of edge effects, area effects, corridors, human needs, economics, tropical biology, minimal critical size of ecosystems research, etc. to design an ideal reserve system.

Your finished presentation must include the following:

  • Prioritized list of purposes of the reserves.
  • A map with all reserve areas located.
  • Each reserve must by optimally designed. (Calculate the size of each reserve.)
  • Discussion of problems encountered in the decision-making and planning process.
  • Class discussion and question and answer session.


  • Consider: Edge effects are most pronounced in small areas.

A study of plot size and species diversity yielded the following results:

Plot Size# of plots# species/plot total # of species ( all plots)
32m2 11420

Your grade will be based upon maximum use, creative and logical solutions, discussion, and complete participation. You must be dressed up. You will be given an individual grade as well as a group effort grade.

Other useful information to consider:

Human factors:

  • The Indians are uncontacted; hunter-gatherers.
  • The Indian village contains 15 families, each requiring 10km2 of intact forest to survive.
  • The Indians depend upon the stream for fish and drinking water, and they use the forest for everything else - meat, foods, medicines, housing materials, rituals.
  • People need agricultural land and access to the forest.
  • Population pressure from cities forces expansion into the frontier.
  • Settlers extract latex, nuts, and palm fibers from the intact rainforest.

Biological factors:

  • Isolated tropical mountains generally contain endemic species.
  • Mountains and rivers are effective barriers to dispersal of tropical species.
  • Different habitats hold different assemblages of species.
  • The western edge of the cordillera had the last sighting of a rare primate and a beautiful rare birdwing butterfly.
  • Tree crops are less disturbing than other crops.

Political and economic factor:

  • The government is encouraging ecotourism and scientific research.
  • The mountains contain gold and iron ore.
  • A rare plant has been discovered growing only on the southern volcano, and it contains a chemical with activity against HIV.
  • The minister of tourism's brother-in-law sells equipment to logging companies.
  • This country has a very large outstanding debt to the U.S.

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