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Teaching Tropical Rainforest Biology

by George Sly, Union High School, Dugger, Indiana

Introduction

As we near the new millennium, we face many pressing bioethical and environmental concerns. From an ecological perspective, perhaps none is more important than tropical rainforest conservation. Although now reduced to an estimated 6-7% of the earth’s land surface, tropical rainforests are believed to harbor over half of all the planet’s floral and faunal species. Consequently, the strongest argument for tropical rainforest conservation may stem from the effect of its loss on the earth’s biodiversity.

Harvard biologist Edward O.Wilson has given us much food for thought with the following remarks:

" The worst thing that can happen, will happen, is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980’s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us." (The Diversity of Life)

It has been estimated that over a hundred species may be lost daily to tropical rainforest destruction. In addition, many indigenous peoples face the loss of their ways of life or extinction themselves. We in turn, are left bereft of their intimate wisdom of the forest, including their utilitarian knowledge of thousands of species of plants. Incidentally, only about 1% of these plants have been assayed by scientists for their medicinal properties. Yet, we already know of many efficacious drugs derived from rainforest plants. A few examples are quinine, tubocurarine, papain, and vincristine. The list of food plants native to tropical forests which are used by humans is extensive and includes bananas, Brazil nuts, chocolate, pepper, tapioca, cinnamon, pineapple, cashew nuts, and vanilla. This is only a fraction of the hundreds of food plants found in the tropical rainforests. Clearly, the loss of tropical rainforest biodiversity in all likelihood means the loss of completely unknown sources of foods, medicines, fibers, wood products and other comforts.


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