Tropical Forest Conservation and our Lifestyle Choices

by Jocelyne Sze

Extinction crisis in the world

There is little doubt that we are currently in the midst of the Earth's 6th mass extinction event. With extinction rates at 1000 to 10000 times their background extinction rates for major taxonomic groups, it is difficult to deny that many organisms are going extinct, and at a faster rate than historical records.

Extinction in tropical forests

While the notion of a tropical forest may be rather exotic, they are the dominant terrestrial ecosystem where I'm from – Singapore and in a larger context, the Southeast Asian region. Housing almost two-thirds of the world's biodiversity, tropical forests worldwide are home to charismatic mega-fauna such as the orangutans, tigers, squirrel monkeys, jaguars, as well as mind-blowing figures of invertebrates (think: Alfred Russel Wallace and his insect collection).

malayan tiger

Malayan tiger caught on a camera trap in the forest reserve at Kenyir Lake, Terrengganu, West Malaysia. Photo borrowed with permission from Rimba.

Yet despite the legislation of protected areas, tropical biodiversity is still in decline, with 50% of the nature reserves studied suffering serious loss of biodiversity. The causes are varied, ranging from poaching for body parts to be used in traditional medicine, bushmeat, habitat degradation/destruction for timber, monoculture plantations or cattle ranching, global climate change to disease outbreaks, as well as other natural causes.

deforestation in Malaysia

Deforestation in the state of Kelantan, West Malaysia.

Some people may argue about the value of conservation, and insist that "Nature be allowed to take its course", i.e. extinction rates allowed to continue unabated. However, the benefits of Nature and biodiversity, while perhaps somewhat intangible, are undeniable, and the ecosystem services provided by a healthy ecosystem with habitat and organisms intact are immeasurably vital life support systems for humans. Furthermore, as people who see the intrinsic value of Nature, we would not want to see our children grow up in a world devoid of biodiversity and natural beauty, would we?

"Save the Orangutans!"

deforestation in Malaysia

[Image source].

Living far away from where majority of the extinction is happening in the tropics, we may feel that there is little we can do. Occasionally, we may come across photos of adorable, often furry and cuddly animals, with an accompanying caption imploring us to save them. Since (almost) everybody loves cute animals, these pictures tug at our heartstrings, and we instantly feel the need to save them. Though of course, less charismatic organisms, such as invertebrates and plants are equally if not more important than their furry counterparts, and deserve their share of the spotlight too, but that's another issue altogether. Nonetheless, helping to save these animals often mean donating to the relevant conservation organisation, and perhaps for the more passionate, volunteering time and services as well.

Lifestyle choices matter too

However, though we may not be able to directly help to conserve these animals by preventing bushmeat or wildlife trade (we can sign petitions, but can hardly influence what happens in China/Africa otherwise), we can make a difference through the way we live. By making ethical and environmentally-friendly choices, we can help save these animals from extinction too!

Deforestation may seem far removed from us, since we're not the ones who are cutting down forests. However, the fact is the demand from developed countries is often what drives developments in developing countries, and deforestation is a major driver of biodiversity loss. Demand for paper and wood products will increase the number of hardwoods felled for timber. Demand for biofuel and meat will result in greater numbers of primary forests converted to palm oil plantations and cattle ranches. Even demand for everyday necessities like coffee and biscuits result in deforestation.

deforestation in Malaysia

Timber being removed from a forest in West Malaysia.

Hence by making ethical choices in the way we live, we can reduce deforestation rates and by extension, possibly help prevent further biodiversity loss. Choose products certified by the Rainforest Alliance or certified as from a sustainable source (though the reliability of this certification is also questionable), and directly support forest-friendly methods of production. Reduce resource and energy usage, and help the fight against climate change (or at least reduce the speed at which climate change occurs so as to allow organisms time to respond and evolve).

deforestation in Malaysia

[Image source: The Rainforest Alliance.]. The Rainforest Alliance has lots of useful suggestions on how to ensure you live forest-friendly!

The decisions we make everyday have an impact on life elsewhere, and the little things we do will add up to a huge impact collectively, so think globally but act locally!

References: (click on links to view the relevant article from each site

The Guardian
BBC News
The Ecologist
Rainforest Alliance

NB: All photos, unless otherwise stated, are taken by Jocelyne Sze.