From: Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press
Published October 14, 2004 12:00 AM

Biologists Call for Action to Protect Tropical Forests

WASHINGTON — Fearful that growing pressure for development could cause the loss of vital plants and animals, biologists and conservationists are trying to rally new interest in protecting tropical forests and the keys they may hold for vital medicines.

Other issues in recent years have turned the focus from environmental matters, but development in these ecosystems should make them a priority now — before undiscovered species that could help produce new medicines go extinct, according to W. John Kress, chief botanist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

"I have worked in 37 tropical countries and have never been to a country where there isn't some human impact," Kress said in an interview. "The whole goal is toward sustainability" of the forests, he added.

Thousands of species of plants and animals remain to be discovered, Kress said, and yet the tropical forests that are home to many of them are being destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture and by commercial logging, among other pressures, Kress said.

Ways must be found to allow existing residents to live there, while protecting the forests, he said.

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation issued a plea for action in a letter in the journal Science.

A major part of that effort is to do an inventory of existing life.

Currently 1.7 million species have been described, but based on the rate new ones are discovered, that's just a small fraction of what may exist, Kress said.

The association's letter also calls for forming partnerships among research institutions, biological collections, scientific journals, and others interested in the tropics.

Cross-disciplinary training programs should be formed of the biological and social sciences, the association said.

And it urged support for an expanded system of field stations, electronically linked, that will study both relatively pristine forest and areas that are already impacted by humans.

Source: Associated Press

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