With the continuing loss of plant and wildlife species in tropical countries, many ecologists are considering whether it’s more urgent to learn what is being lost or try to save what’s left. That’s one inference from an informal but revealing survey conducted by ecosystem scientist David Clark for the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), that asked biologists to state what they believed to be the “big questions” of tropical biology for the 21st century.
“Better management of tropical forests and tree plantations” was the most common answer, given by 12 percent of respondents. “Biodiversity inventories and tropical systematics” was the second most common answer, given by 11 percent. Some 37 percent listed 12 different fields of research, including ecology of fragmented forests, baseline conditions in relatively undisturbed forests, effects of global change on tropical-forest systems, and effects of introduced species.
Clark did the survey for the OTS research committee, which he chairs, to help guide the organization as it decides research and education priorities. OTS is a consortium of 55 universities and research institutions in the United States, Latin America, and Australia. It owns and operates three biological research stations in Costa Rica. The best known is La Selva, whose labs, classrooms, and dormitories sit on the edge of a 3,700-acre, lowland-forest reserve. Thousands of biologists from around the world have done research and taken field courses there.
“Topics mentioned by survey respondents are not very different from the kind of research going on at La Selva, where you find strong components on tropical-forest ecology and systematics, the two most highly ranked responses,” Clark notes. “But as a longtime teacher of OTS field courses, I don’t think we are teaching enough of what people are saying are the most important topics.”
Clark emphasizes that the small survey sample was biased, in that most respondents are terrestrial scientists from the United States, who likely lean toward conservation. He emailed surveys in January 2001 to professionals associated with OTS or the Ecological Society of America; 52 responded.
Clark is surprised that biodiversity inventories and tropical systematics, the science of classifying plants and animals, were mentioned by so many. But he adds, “Every single person who responded that way did so with a sense of urgency — we’re losing it, so we better study it now.”
David Whitacre, a conservation biologist with the Peregrine Fund, was one of the respondents who ranked biological research highly, “given the general dearth of knowledge about tropical biota.” But he stresses that the “clear priority is action that will rapidly help save what remains of tropical biota. We have the rest of human history to study tropical biota, but we have only a few years left in which to save what we can.” He also wishes more students were interested in systematics and more funds were available to support their studies, particularly of those plant and animal groups that are so diverse in the tropics, such as insects.
Whitacre goes on to list tropical agriculture as an important research area. “Improving agricultural productivity and conditions of farmers throughout Guatemala, where I work, may be among the most potent tools for slowing deforestation there,” he explains, adding that the field needs input from soil scientists, ecologists, agronomists, economists, anthropologists, and social scientists.
While he did not participate in the OTS survey, biologist Ricardo Ibarra of El Salvador places priority on flora and fauna research “so that we know exactly what species exist and where, and then we can discuss strategies for conservation.” Ibarra works for SalvaNATURA, a local conservation group that manages El Salvador’s largest protected area, El Imposible National Park.
One priority area for biologists, in Ibarra’s opinion, is protected-areas management. He feels there is little technical knowledge guiding the management of the country’s 125 relatively small, and therefore particularly precious, protected areas. After El Salvador’s civil war concluded in 1992, conservationists realized that there were biodiversity-rich areas in the once conflictive north and east that needed protection. “These areas are as large or larger than already protected parks and with the same or even more biological diversity,” he says. “But the legal process for protecting them is complicated and extremely slow.”
One problem with the education that biologists receive in El Salvador, he points out, is that there’s no training available in specific fields. He believes the country needs more wildlife biologists, especially in the area of fisheries. Graduate students also need more sources of support for thesis work, he says, since “obtaining funds to cover field research is almost impossible.”
Clark acknowledges that the increasing number of professional biologists in tropical countries need stronger education and training opportunities. “It is still the case that the majority of tropical research published in first-line journals is published in English, with first-world scientists as lead authors,” he says. “A major challenge is how to increase both the level of professional preparation and the published research output of third-world scientists, and how to link these to productive interactions with scientists in developed countries.”
At the same time, a number of people who responded to the OTS survey remarked on the inadequacy of the traditional U.S. research model to meet research priorities. In the United States, only those biologists who are able to get research grants and publish papers are likely to get the security of tenure at a university. As Clark explains it, “If you’re pre-tenure, you could devote many hours of valuable service helping biologists in tropical countries do important ecosystem studies, but that will hurt you since you haven’t spent time publishing papers. To get tenure, you must publish, get grants, and teach. Service doesn’t count.” There has to be a way, he concludes, to reward researchers who do on-the-ground conservation.
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