Unsustainable hunting and poaching are decimating wildlife in the world’s tropical forest reserves, according to scientists.
In a paper published in the journal BioScience, researchers report that unsustainable hunting is leaving behind “empty forests” that are largely devoid of larger mammals, birds and reptiles.
Such losses are likely to have significant impacts on whole ecosystems, removing vital seed dispersers and destroying food chains.
Around 18% of the world’s tropical forests currently receive some level of protection, a figure which is seen as a measure of conservation success by many. However, although this has helped to reduce habitat loss, hunting and poaching remain widespread problems across the tropical forests of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Amazon.
“In many parts of the tropics, hunting is now the biggest threat to tropical biodiversity,” said the author of the paper, Rhett Harrison. “There is a need to acknowledge the unpalatable but undeniable fact that current tropical conservation efforts are failing.”
Smaller reserves are especially vulnerable to poaching as they are generally considered to be lower conservation priorities. This is particularly true of reserves that lack large, charismatic species such as big cats or elephants.
Although the poaching of large animals often makes news headlines, many smaller, less well-known animals play equally important roles in the ecosystem. Hunters often target animals around fruiting trees, killing many fruit-eating species that are vital seed dispersers. The loss of these species could potentially affect the entire plant community of the forest.
The issues behind what has become known as “empty forest syndrome” include a lack of funding for reserves, a lack of wildlife rangers, limited political support, poor infrastructure and insufficient law enforcement. New roads and development projects are also opening up previously inaccessible areas of forest to hunters.
A lack of data also hampers efforts to tackle hunting, with reserve authorities often reluctant to admit having enforcement issues. This makes it difficult to obtain accurate measures of the number of animals being killed.
The social issues behind hunting are also complex, with poverty and a lack of alternative protein sources leading many local communities to rely on bushmeat for food.
“Local communities often regard the forest as their birthright and hunting – even of endangered species – as an important cultural tradition,” said Harrison.
Unfortunately, commercial bushmeat is becoming a luxury item in some parts of the world, even being sold in urban areas, and hunting for the traditional Chinese medicine trade is also taking a heavy toll on many species.
Harrison recommends a number of measures to protect wildlife from unsustainable hunting. These include encouraging conservationists to ‘think outside the box’ when coming up with solutions to the sale of bushmeat, as well as measuring conservation success by effective enforcement and intact wildlife communities rather than by the amount of land protected.
Conservationists should also work with logging and energy companies to improve the enforcement of hunting rules in their concessions.
For many poorer countries, efforts to combat poaching need to be seen as vital to the economy, for example through nature-based tourism.
“Many tropical nations earn large sums of money from nature-based tourism, but governments often remain ignorant of the essential role that wildlife and nature reserves play in underpinning the industry,” said Harrison. “Partnerships with tour operators and government tourist agencies may therefore be an effective way of lobbying for improved wildlife management.”
Unfortunately, many protected areas are already in an impoverished condition and may need efforts to restore vanished species. Unless this is done, and species are effectively protected from unsustainable hunting, being “protected” will not ensure that tropical forests survive in anything close to their natural state.
Read more on this story at Mongabay – Majority of protected tropical forests “empty” due to hunting.
Find out more about the issues surrounding bushmeat hunting at the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force.
Find out more about threats facing Endangered Species on ARKive.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author