Gary Hartshorn, President and CEO, Organization for Tropical Studies, Duke University
Q: How do you define biodiversity?
is not only the diversity of species, but also genetic diversity,
community diversity and, most importantly, ecosystem diversity.
So it spans a very broad spectrum, far greater than just species.
Q: What are the most significant threats to biodiversity?
GH: From my perspective, as a specialist
on tropical forests, clearly the greatest threats are the conversion
of forest to nonforest uses. These changes, particularly deforestation,
are destroying at least tens of thousands of species, maybe hundreds
of thousands of species, many of which we don't even know.
Q: Why should people care?
GH: Well, one thing is clear,
and that is that the planet earth, that we all share with millions
of other species, is getting ever smaller.
We are on one earth, and we all share this planet. If
we are not concerned about our fellow species that are out there,
then there's very little chance that they will survive. And that
is, of course, particularly important for people from the First
World. We can
help fund the conservation of biodiversity, but we can also make
the case to other donors, to banks and aid agencies and so forth,
that conservation of biodiversity is a global issue. And we have
to be concerned about it in the Amazon, in New Guinea, in other parts
of the world.
Q: What other kinds of things should we be
GH: I think we have to be, first of all, concerned,
committed to conservation of biodiversity. That's fundamentally
important. We can do many things: we can donate money; we can
write letters; we can call responsible officials. Oftentimes
we can travel to these areas and see biodiversity firsthand.
That's of particular interest to people from developed countries
and, of course, that has become incredibly popular as ecotourism
or nature-based tourism. A lot of people think
that that's a luxury, but, in fact, it often demonstrates to poorer
areas, poorer countries, that, yes, those natural resources --
that biodiversity -- is important, it is valuable. It
can generate income to those countries. We see a burgeoning of
interest, of efforts to capitalize on mostly developed-country
interests in biodiversity. That often has a follow-up, in that
local peoples -- nationals of these countries that are particularly
rich in biodiversity -- also see what they have.
So all these aspects come together. And
it's not that any one of us has to do everything, but we should
be trying to do our small part.
Q: Is there hope that we could stem the current tide of extinction?
GH: It's very hard to predict what's going
to happen with the current extinction crisis.
However, I am cautiously optimistic. I
see many new efforts at trying to conserve biological diversity.
And this is really encouraging.
The problem that we're facing is that we're
in a very rapid race here. There are
some encouraging signs -- there are a lot of creative, innovative
efforts to involve local people, for example, in the conservation
of biodiversity. But when we look at habitat loss, destruction of
ecosystems -- oceans, forests and so forth -- we're losing a lot
of habitat very, very rapidly. So it's a question of how
quickly we can scale up these exciting, innovative projects so
that they are ecosystem-level significant.
Q: How do you convince a skeptic?
GH: Well, let me clarify -- that extinction
is not a crisis?
Q: Right, exactly.
GH: There are skeptics who say that extinction is
not occurring, and it's hard to prove the negative,
that extinction is occurring, when we know so little about the
bulk of the species that occur, particularly in complex ecosystems
like tropical forests, coral reefs, and so forth.
But when we look at how localized many species'
distributions are, and we compare that with the landscape
of those habitats, then extinction
has to be happening. And, just by chance, we might find a little
reservoir, or a remnant patch of forest that happens to have some
of those species, but the numbers have to be astronomical, really.
Q: What are the utility and importance of ecotourism?
GH: The Organization for Tropical Studies
has as its goal to turn on impressionable young
graduate students to the tropics. And, as you well know, that
has worked, and worked incredibly well. But, really, what we're
trying to do is expose graduate students -- and now we're moving
into undergraduate training, as well -- to these unique ecosystems
in the tropics, particularly the very complex tropical rainforest.
And what we find is that some proportion -- maybe it's only 5%
or 10% -- actually end up devoting part, or maybe their whole
career, to research and conservation of tropical forests.
More important is to expose a much broader
pool of people -- not only students -- but natural-history tourists,
legislators, decision-makers, those kinds of people,
to the critical issues facing tropical forests. One of the areas that I am particularly concerned
about is what is happening in the forest-rich countries in the
tropics. Many of these countries, such as those that share
the Amazon Basin, the Congo Basin, the large islands in
Southeast Asia -- Borneo, Sulawesi, even New Guinea,
the world's largest tropical island -- is that these areas have
anywhere from 50% to 80% of their tropical forests still intact,
still harboring an incredible diversity of species, genera, ecosystems
-- the whole works. These are functional ecosystems. And many
of these countries that share these tropical forests have less
than 10% set aside as protected areas: traditional national parks,
wildlife sanctuaries and biological reserves.
So what's going to happen is that those
unprotected forests are available for development, and development
is virtually synonymous with deforestation. If we don't come
up with viable ways for local people in particular to use those
forests without destroying them, we're looking at a tremendous
extinction spasm of the bulk of the species on our planet, because
they are in tropical forests.
I, and many other people, are working
very hard to find viable ways that local communities can use their
resources without destroying them. Some are nontimber
forest products; for example, medicines, foods, weaving materials,
and so forth. We even think that it may be possible to use the
tropical forests for timber production in a sustainable way that
is compatible with the conservation of biodiversity. That may
sound heretical, but I think we're fairly comfortable
that we know how to manage a lot of these complex tropical
forests timber, for production of nontimber
forest products, other kinds of goods and services that will allow
people to use the forests without destroying them.
Q: What about the traditional use of forests?
GH: The issue of traditional use of natural
resources is a very important one. Indigenous peoples have lived
in tropical forests for millennia. They've used the resources,
hunting and gathering, even subsistence agriculture. And at low
population densities, these are ecologically sound uses of the
forests and their resources. It's when people
become involved particularly in commercial exploitation of those
resources. . . . One of the best examples comes from the
Congo Basin where there's a tremendous urbanization
going on in the major cities. These people, many of them recent
immigrants, actually prefer bush meat -- wild game harvested from
the forest -- to beef, for example. So there's tremendous
pressure on the wildlife, particularly the preferred species --
such as duikers, some of the monkeys -- by these
One of the serious complex problems
that occurrs in tropical forest areas that are opened up
for timber harvesting -- mostly by large
foreign companies that look for only the best tropical
hardwoods -- is that their trucks, their roads, permit and provide
access to commercial hunters, who go in and decimate the
forests of bush meat. Most of that goes to
the small cities, and oftentimes even the large urban areas.
That's a fundamentally serious problem. And the timber companies
will say, well, they're not responsible. It's often the
case when governments totally fail to control the exploitation
of their resources -- of timber, of harvesting of bush meat, and
even the conversion of forest to nonforest uses.
We hear the criticism quite often: Well, you First Worlders come
in and tell us that we ought to save our forests, we ought
to set aside these areas as national parks -- when, in fact, you've
decimated your forests. And it's a legitimate criticism. However,
our response should be, don't repeat our mistakes.
We have made many of these mistakes. Just like if you want to
develop a car, or you want to build a hydroelectric plant,
you don't start de novo, from scratch, and learn the
physics of motion, or turbines. You
import that knowledge; you import those technologies. And what
we're seeing happening is that those technologies for destruction
of the resources, such as logging equipment, are
brought in from outside.
On the one hand, we see the import of
these technologies, and, on the other hand, we don't see the concomitant
protection of the resources -- by setting aside reserves for indigenous
people, for production forestry -- and
insisting that they be brought under management, rather than just
opened up to mining of the forest resources.