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New research project to examine the empty forest syndrome

A new research project will study how participatory forest monitoring can be a viable option to achieve long-term forest conservation goals by including animal species in the scope of forest conservation schemes.

Torsten Krause, researcher at LUCSUS-LU and a member of Focali secured a three year international post-doc grant from VR – the Swedish Research Council to work on this project in the Amazonian parts of Colombia and Ecuador. “By not including animals as an important part of the forest ecosystem and mostly paying attention to forest cover; an incomplete and inaccurate sense of conservation success is being created. In the long run the disappearance of animals also threatens the trees and the entire forest ecosystems at large”, comments T. Krause.

Description of the project:

Tropical deforestation and forest degradation is a global problem. Forests store vast amounts of carbon, are home to hundreds of thousands of species and provide many benefits to people worldwide. The Amazon region of South America, well known for its large tropical rainforests has been in focus of the global forest conservation efforts for a while. The main goal for forest conservation is usually the protection of forests from deforestation and degradation. After all, trees are the symbol of forest, and trees also absorb and store carbon.

What is often left out of the conservation schemes is the fact that a healthy forest needs animals that live in it. Studies show that it is hard to find such sought after species like tapir, collared and the white-lipped peccary and large monkeys (for example the wooly, spider and howler monkeys) in many forests of the Amazon region, including those areas that are protected. This phenomenon — where a forest is seemingly healthy and well conserved but lacking native large animals — is called empty forest syndrome. 

What is more, many people in the Amazon rainforest rely, to a great extent, on hunting and fishing for food or for income. However, the favored for hunting animals like, for instance, the tapir, many monkey species or large birds, are essentially the gardeners of the forest. These animals eat fruits and seeds from trees and then transport the seeds to other parts of the forest, where the seedling have a higher chance to germinate and grow into a tree. Animals such as tapir are very important seed dispersers that are necessary in order to maintain the diversity of trees in the Amazonian rainforest.

This new research project will examine to what extent the forest animal species are currently being protected in forest conservation projects in two countries that have tropical Amazonian rainforests – Ecuador and Colombia. Subsequently, the role of hunting and its impacts on tropical rainforest will be investigated. Fieldwork will be carried out in several Indigenous communities in the Amazon region of Ecuador and Colombia.

T. Krause says that he intends to use surveys, interviews and experimental games in order to provide recommendation for better and more effective inclusion of animal species into design and implementation of a forest conservation project. In Ecuador and also Colombia, commercial hunting is illegal. However, lack of control and enforcement from the governments of these laws allows for a thriving black market for wild meat. This, in addition, also prevents the local indigenous communities from following their traditional diets because hunting rate are so high that forest animals cannot reproduce fast enough. Rapid urbanization adds up to the picture, increasing the pressure on the forests, driving many species to extinction.

“The main feature of my approach will be working very closely with local communities who own forests. Only with people is it possible to develop and strengthen forest conservation in meaningful and sustainable ways. An important and promising method is that people living in the communities carry out participatory forest monitoring. This is a viable option to secure long-term successes in forest conservation that includes animal species and not just trees”, says T. Krause. 

Participatory forest monitoring that includes animal species is not widely carried out yet. However, without the involvement of communities in monitoring, and by only focusing on trees and tree cover, the long-term sustainable forest conservation is unlikely and incomplete. This new research will therefore contribute to further development of this method and improve our understanding of local hunting behavior and its place in forest conservation efforts.

Read more about Torsten Krause here.

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