Tropinet Vol. 9 No.3, September 1998

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Phoenix Rising? Fragility and Resilience Of Tropical Forests

ATB Presidential Address, Baltimore, MD; August 3, 1998; by Robin L. Chazdon, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06268-3043

The Phoenix is a mythical bird of great beauty fabled to live 500 or 600 years in the Arabian wilderness, to burn itself on a funeral pyre, and then to rise from its own ashes in the freshness of youth and live through another cycle of years. Widespread forest fires, fueled by ENSO-related drought and human hunger for land, have burned many areas of tropical forests from Indonesia to Amazonia (see feature by J. Sayer, Tropinet December 1997). As yet, we don't know their total extent, nor can we assess the combined consequences of drought, fire, and land conversion for biodiversity and global climate. Will these grand forests rise from their ashes? How can our knowledge of tropical biology help us to evaluate the significance and consequences of this apparent annihilation of tropical forests?

Forest fires evoke visions of death and unrecoverable destruction. Yet, if we consider the resilience of tropical forests, we can envision a different future. The resilience of tropical forests becomes more evident when we realize that large-scale disturbances are far more prevalent than previously thought. Whitmore and Burslem (1998) claim that forests whose current species composition is controlled by small-scale canopy disturbances may actually constitute a minority. Most of the tropical forests that we study have been affected by large-scale disturbances.

Charcoal deposits in soils beneath tropical moist forests throughout the tropics indicate that these forests can and do recover from fires. The level of fire severity and the frequency of fires are important determinants of sprouting capacity and, ultimately, of the potential for forest recovery. Most species of rain forest trees in eastern Amazonia resprout and survive surface fires of low intensity, whereas repeated burning eliminates nearly all sprouted trees. Logging (both conventional and selective) of tropical forests increases frequency and intensity of forest fires. During the 1992-93 fires in Borneo, logged forests were six times more likely to burn than primary forests. Reduced impact logging can substantially reduce the danger of fires and the intensity of fires that do occur. Fires can also be successfully controlled through the use of firebreaks. What makes the current scenario of forest burning different from Holocene forest fires is the increased frequency of fires and the high rate of conversion of burned land to plantations, pastures and agriculture. The major risk from increased fire frequency is the conversion of large areas of moist rain forest into savanna-like scrub.

Tropical forest ecology research has traditionally focused on "internal" patch-scale dynamics of forests, with small-scale disturbances as an integral part of the forest matrix. Research agendas have been dominated by questions regarding the maintenance of stability of populations, nutrient stocks, and species richness within this matrix. Large-scale forest recovery, however, depends largely on "external" dynamics that influence vegetation composition, such as seed dispersal, landscape heterogeneity and regional land-use history. In many tropical landscapes, mature forests are reduced to islands in a sea of successional vegetation. Our science must encompass the broader-scale perspective of this heterogeneous landscape.

If land has not been excessively degraded, tropical forests can generally recover following massive deforestation and land conversion (Uhl et al. 1989). In Singapore, 90% of the forest was cleared for agriculture by 1883 (Corlett 1991). Some areas have recovered very slowly, particularly on severely degraded soils, where initial stages of regeneration were limited by edaphic factors. Recovery has been rapid in other areas, although after 50-100 years no Dipterocarpaceae or other large-seeded members of the previous rain forest flora occur. Later stages of succession are often limited by seed dispersal. In these cases, vertebrate seed dispersers are locally extinct and human seed dispersal could be a key factor in regeneration of poorly dispersed species. For millennia, people have sown and harvested trees from tropical forest fallows and mature forests (Balee and Gely, 1989).

Recovery of secondary forests of Sarapiquf, Costa Rica is proceeding rapidly. In 15-20 year old second-growth forests, tree basal area has recovered, and species richness and life form distribution of woody seedlings are similar to that of old-growth forests (Guariguata et al. 1997). Areas of old-growth forest are close, and seed dispersing birds and mammals are still abundant, increasing the prospects for recovery. Furthermore, these young forests are rich in timber, medicinal species and other useful species, suggesting that second-growth could be managed to provide products previously obtained from old-growth forests.

A focus on the regenerative capacities of burned, logged, fragmented, or cleared tropical forests carries a hopeful message with clear suggestions about how to prevent further species loss. Today, we have a fleeting opportunity to build on these remnants, and to refill the cornucopia, at least in part. If we fail to recognize the inherent worth of human-impacted areas, and the resiliency of tropical forests, we will certainly have more to lose. Not only will we lose more species, but also we may forfeit our last opportunity to make a positive human impact on tropical forests.


BalTe, W. and A. GTly. 1989. Managed forest succession in Amazonia: the Ka'apor case. Advances in Economic Botany 7: 129-158.

Corlett, R. T. 1991. Plant succession on degraded land in Singapore. Journal of Tropical Forest Science 4: 151-161.

Guariguata, M. R., R. L. Chazdon, J. S. Denslow, J. M. Dupuy, and L. Anderson. 1997. Structure and floristics of secondary and old-growth forest stands in lowland Costa Rica. Plant Ecology 132: 107-120.

Uhl, C., D. Nepstad, R. Buschbacher, K. Clark, B. Kauffman, and S. Subler. 1989. Disturbance and regeneration in Amazonia: Lessons for sustainable land-use. The Ecologist 19: 235-240.

Whitmore, T. C. and D. F. R. P. Burslem. 1998. Major disturbances in tropical rainforests. In: D. M. Newbery, N. Brown, and H. H. T. Prins, eds. Dynamics of Tropical Communities, Blackwell Science, pp. 549-565.

Asia and Pacific

Effects of the El Nino. An analysis of the ongoing effects of the El Nino drought on the frogs of Papua New Guinea, by David P. Bickford, is available in the June 1998 edition of FROGLOG, newsletter of the Declining Amphibian Task Force. WWW:

Conservation of Tropical Species, Communities, and Ecosystems. An international conference will be held in Thiruvananthapuram, India, 3-6 December. The conference is jointly organized by the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Project, India, and the International Society for Tropical Biology. Information: Dr. P. Pushpangadan, Director, Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute, Pacha Palode, Thiruvananthapuram, 695562, Kerala, India.


Conference on Tropical Canopy Research. This conference, to be held at Oxford University, UK, 12-16 December, will highlight progress of the Tropical Canopy Research Programme of the European Science Foundation. Sessions are planned on canopy architecture, plants and animals in the canopy, hydrology, microclimate and light, sampling and access, environmental change and management, and politics and communication. Information: Andrew Davis, Danum Valley Field Centre, P.O. Box 60282, Sabah, Malaysia. Email:

Latin America

Results of the 14th Meeting of the CITES Animals Committee. The CITES Animals Committee meeting was held May 25-29 in Caracas, Venezuela. Key issues discussed at the Animals Committee meeting include transport of live animals, trade in animal species used in traditional medicines, and significant trade in species of animals. The agenda, list of documents, and copies of documents adopted are available by request from The Office of Scientific Authority. Email:

Book Donations Sought. The new Post-graduate Program in Ecology and Environmental Education seeks donations of books and other materials to help build its library. Information: Prof. Dr. Rodolfo Antonio de Figueiredo, Coordenador da Pos-Graduacao em Ecologfa e Educacao Ambiental, Faculdade de CiTncias e Letras Padre Anchieta, Rua Bom Jesus de Pirapora 140, 13207-660, Jundiao, SP, Brazil.

Field Station Profile:

The Bilsa Biological Station, Ecuador


Bilsa Biological Station is a nature preserve and a center for field research and environmental education. Founded in 1994 by the Jatun Sacha Foundation in memory of biologists Al Gentry and Ted Parker, Bilsa conserves a critical 1500 ha remnant of Ecuadorean coastal premontane wet forest. Less than one percent of this forest type remains.

Located in the Mache Mountains in the northwestern coastal province of Esmeraldas, this remnant forest has a unique floral and faunal composition. Although physically isolated from the Andes, it possesses species thought to be endemic to the western Andean highland forests (100 km to the SW) as well as species thought to be endemic to the Choco, a pluvial forest of southern coastal Colombia. Bilsa's steeper ridges are shrouded in a dense fog, due to the region's rugged topography (300-600 meters) and the coastal climate. These steep ridges sustain cloud forest species usually restricted to much higher elevations.

Although surveys have just recently been completed, the biological diversity of the Bilsa reserve is impressive. Mammals include jaguars, small rare cat species, and abundant populations of the threatened Mantled Howler Monkey. Bird species diversity (224 species) is among the highest of any coastal Ecuadorean site. Bilsa harbors several threatened bird species, and has isolated populations of nine species never before recorded away from the Andes. The ongoing botanical inventory at Bilsa has uncovered 25 undescribed plant species. In 1996, the Center for Conservation of Western Forest Plants was established at Bilsa. The Center now houses 25,000 seedlings for future use in reforestation and plantation projects.

Scientists, volunteers, and leaders of educational groups are all encouraged to work at Bilsa. There are two field cabins that can accommodate up to 22 visitors at a time. New facility construction, including 12 private rooms and a research area, is in progress. Mattresses, sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, and candles are provided. Solar panels provide some electricity. All meals are provided.

The Jatun Sacha Foundation is currently seeking donations to purchase additional land with intact forest while this opportunity still exists. Reserve expansion will ensure protection of most of the species of this unique, unstudied, and endangered coastal rainforest. The Foundation is also collaborating with other Ecuadorian conservation groups to secure a government-protected status for the forested area northwest of Bilsa.

Reservations should be made through the Jatun Sacha Foundation office in Quito by phone, fax, or Email. Researchers should provide two months advance notice. Research activities must be pre-approved by Jatun Sacha. For those intending to collect plant or animal specimens, both collecting and export permits from INEFAN are required. Station fees for non-Ecuadorian visitors are $15.00 per day, including meals. Monthly fees for student researchers and interns are $200.00. Information: Fundaci=n Jatun Sacha, Avenida Rfo Coca 1734, Casilla 17-12-867 Quito, Ecuador. Tel/Fax: (593-2) 441-592 or 250-976. Email: mccolm@jsacha.ecx.ex.


Meetings and Events
Items marked (*) are new this issue


*Complex Systems '98: Complexity Between the Ecos - From Ecology to Economics. Sydney, Australia, 30 November-3 December. Information: WWW:

*Globalization and Localization: Exploring Tensions and Synergies in Forest Policy. Bogor, Indonesia, 19-25 November. Information: Ketty Kustiyawati, The Center for International Forestry Research, P.O. Box 6596, JKPWB, Jakarta, 10065, Indonesia. Email:

*World Heritage Convention Sites. Gunung Leuser National Park, North Sumatra, 7-11 December. The Center for International Forestry Research in collaboration with the World Heritage Convention Secretariat, UNESCO, IUCN, and WCMC, is organizing a meeting to review the extent to which existing World Heritage Convention sites conserve forest biodiversity, and whether present management regimes are optimal. Information: Ketty Kustiyawati, CIFOR, P.O. Box 6596, JKPWB, Jakarta, 10065, Indonesia. Email:

The Second William R. and Lenore Mote International Symposium in Fisheries Ecology: Essential Fish Habitat and Marine Reserves. Sarasota, Florida, 4-6 November. Sponsored by the Florida State University/National Marine Fisheries Service Institute for Fishery Resource Ecology. Information: Chuck Jones, Tel: (850) 644-2653; Fax: (850) 644-2589; Email:

Workshop on Biodiversity and Sustainable Development in Latin America. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 27-28 November. Information: CEDLA Workshop, Keizergracht 397, Amsterdam, 1016 EK, The Netherlands. Email: carriere@cedla.uva.n.



*International Symposium on the Biogeography of Madagascar: Diversity and Endemism in Madagascar - Endemic Centers and Priorities to Conservation. Paris, France, 31 August - 2 September. Information: Dr. Wilson R. Lourenco, Laboratoire de Zoologie, Museum National D'Histoire Naturelle 61, rue de Buffon, 75005. Paris, France. Email:

Tropical Restoration for the New Millennium. San Juan, Puerto Rico, 23-28 May. Co-sponsored by the Society of Ecological Restoration (SER), the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO), and the University of Puerto Rico. Held jointly with the 4th Annual Puerto Rico Forestry Conference. Information: J. Parrotta, International Institute of Tropical Forestry, USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 25000, R°o Piedras, PR 00928-5000, USA. Email:

Change and Disturbance in Tropical Rain Forests in South East Asia. London, UK. 20-21 January. Information: Science Promotion Section: The Royal Society, 6 Carlton House Terrace, London, UK. SW1Y5AG. WWW:

13th Congress of the International Union for the Study of Social Insects. Adelaide, S. Australia. 29 December 1998-4 January 1999. Information: Congress Secretary, Michael Schwarz, School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University of S. Australia, Bedford Park, SA. 5042, Australia. Email: <>. WWW:


Ecosistemas Amaz=nicos. This intensive Spanish language field course will be offered for the first time in May 1999 by the Organization for Tropical Studies in collaboration with the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research. Ecosistemas Amaz=nicos will focus on the unique characteristics of the flooded and upland forests of the western Amazon region near Iquitos, Peru. This course is primarily intended to serve Latin American graduate students, although Spanish speaking graduate students may apply regardless of nationality. Coordinators will be Drs. Bette Loiselle and Alejandro Farji. Dates: 10 May-7 June. Information: Dr. Nora Bynum, Box 90630, Durham, NC 27708-0630. Tel: 919-684-5774; Fax: (919) 684-5661; Email:

The Birds of Costa Rica: Tropical Bird Ecology for Birding Enthusiasts. 8-21 December 1998, 13-26 April 1999, 24 August - 6 September 1999. Cost: $1,900. Information: The Monteverde Institute, Email:


Community-Based Forest Management at Gunung Palung National Park, Indonesia. This pilot project in West Kalimantan attempts to demonstrate that selectively logged production forests bordering protected areas can be managed for both sustainable timber extraction and for conservation of biodiversity. The goal is to develop supportive institutions such as community-based forestry enterprise based on sawnwood marketing. The enterprise must achieve financial viability and create incentives for community support of conservation objectives, and demonstrate to government agencies that buffer zone forests are viable land use options. The forest management system to be refined would optimize tradeoffs between conservation, sustainable production, and economic viability and incentives. The project, a collaboration between Harvard University and the Ministry of Forestry of Indonesia, is now beginning its implementation phase after three years of build up.

Positions are available for both a Project Manager and Project Forester. Two or three volunteer internships are also available. These would join an existing project staff of mostly Indonesian personnel. All applicants must be committed to becoming conversant in Indonesian. Full position descriptions are available from the project director. Candidates will be interviewed during August. Information: Dr. Mark Leighton, Project Director, Laboratory of Tropical Forest Ecology, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138. Tel: 617-495-2288; Fax: (617) 496-8041; Email:


Shadows in the Forest: Japan and the Politics of Timber in Southeast Asia. P. Dauvergne. 1997. MIT Press. Examines Japan's effect on commercial timber management in Indonesia, East Malaysia, and the Philippines. This book is the first to analyze the environmental impact of Japanese trade, corporations, and aid on timber management in the context of Southeast Asian political economies. 336 pp. $22.00. Orders: 800-356-0343. Code: 8ENV.

Flora of the Venezuelan Guayana: vol. 4. Caesalpiniaceae-Ericaceae. P.E. Berry, B.K. Holst, and K. Yatskievysch, eds. 1998. Missouri Botanical Garden Press. 799 pp. 1329 species treated. ISBN: 0-915279-52-5. $67.95. Orders: Missouri Botanical Garden Press, 4344 Shaw Blvd. St. Louis, MO. 63110-2991. Tel: (314) 577-9534. Fax: (314) 577-9591. Email: WWW:

Trentepohliales: Cephaleuros, Phycopletis and Stomatochroon, Morphology, Taxonomy, and Ecology by R.H. Thompson and D.E. Wujek. 1997. 146pp. 60 plates with 265+ illustrations (line drawings, LM and SEM). This book is a monograph of a large green algal family that grows epiphytically or parasitically on leaves, bark and fruit of tropical and subtropical vascular plants. The book includes descriptions and keys to 41 species and one variety in the three genera. These keys are based on the literature and the authors' light and electron microscope observations of materials collected throughout the world. The taxonomy, morphology, and ecology of each species form the heart of the book. The book will be most useful not only to phycologists, but also plant pathologists and ecologists as a milestone study on the Trentepohliales. Available in- North America: Science Publishers, Inc., Enfield Distribution Co., P.O. Box 699/May St., Enfield, NH 03748; Europe: Lavis Publishers, 73 Lime Walk, Headington, Oxford 0X3 7AD, UK; Asia: Oxford & IBH Publishing co. Pvt. Ltd., 66 Janpath, New Delhi 100 001, India.-- Dan Wujek, Central Michigan University.

Vegetation of Southern Africa. R.M. Cowling, D.M. Richardson, and S.M. Pierce, eds. Forward by B.J. Huntley. 1997. Cambridge University Press. This work is the first comprehensive account of the vegetation of southern Africa and is divided into three major parts: Part 1 provides the physiographic, climatic, biogeographic and historical background essential for understanding contemporary vegetation patterns and processes. Part 2 includes systematic descriptions of the characteristics and determinants of major vegetation units. Part 3 elaborates on selected ecological themes of particular importance including grazing, fire, alien plant invasions, conservation, and human use of plants. 680 pp. $180.00. Orders: Tel: (800) 872-7423. Fax: (914) 937-4712.

CIDA Forestry Advisors Network. The CIDA Forestry Advisors Network (CFAN) has recently posted two new papers on its website: a project profile that describes the PAGS natural resources management project in Honduras (available in French, English, and Spanish) and a description of the CFAN network. Please visit us at:

Environmental Sustainability: Practical Global Applications. F.Smith. 1998. Lewis Publishers. Presents the views of the developing countries themselves on issues such as wildlife resources in Nambia, timber production in Costa Rica, property rights and land reform in South Africa, and steps being taken to implement environmentally sustainable economies around the world. 304 pp. $55.00. ISBN: 1-57444-077-2. Catalog no. SL0772. Orders: Lewis Publishers, Tel: (800) 272-7737, Outside of US Tel: (561) 994-0555, Fax: (800) 374-3401. Email: WWW:

Conservation Thesaurus. T. Moritz. 1996. IUCN Publications. This structured list of "keywords" has been compiled to aid indexing of conservation and biological diversity information. Terms were selected from lists already in use within IUCN and from such internationally accepted sources such as the OECD Macrothesarus. 39 pp. ISBN: 2-8317-0231-3. Orders: Island Press, Tel: (800) 828-1302. Email:

Orchids: Status, Survey, and Conservation Action Plan. A.M. Pridgeon, E. Hagsater, and V. Dumont, eds. 1996. IUCN Publications. 161 pp. ISBN: 2-8317-0325-5. Orders: Island Press, Tel: (800) 828-1302. Email:

Non-Timber Forest Products: Ecological and Economic Aspects of Exploitation in Columbia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. G. Broekhoven. 1996. IUCN Publications. 125pp. ISBN: 2-8317-0308-5. Orders: Island Press, Tel: (800) 828-1302. Email:

MABFauna/MABFlora Now available in Windows (3.x, 95 & NT) and MABFlora Now Available for Four Regions. The Information Center for the Environment at the University of California, Davis, which hosts the MABFauna database, has recently completed the conversion of the software programs to Windows. Additionally, MABFlora is now available for the regions of U.S. and Canada, Europe, Russia, and East Africa. Information: contact the BRIM Secretariat at U.S. MAB. Soon this new version can be downloaded from the MAB website: or from the Information Center for the Environment:

Fieldwork Code of Practice. FROGLOG, June 1998. Concerns have been raised by those analyzing amphibian decline that amphibian researchers could be acting as vectors of the very disease problems that cause such concern. In response to this, the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force has produced a Fieldwork Code of Practice. Information: J. Wilkinson, Department of Biology, The Open University, Walton Hall, Miton Keynes, MK7 6AA, United Kingdom. Tel: +44 (0) 1908-652274. Fax: +44 (0) 1908-654167. Email: WWW:

Animal Conservation: A Journal of Ecology, Evolution, and Genetics. This new journal will be published by Cambridge University Press for the Zoological Society of London. Fields covered will include: ecology, behavioral ecology, and wildlife biology; wildlife disease and epidemiology; evolutionary ecology and genetics; population biology; systematic biology and phylogenetics; biogeography; and management. Information: Cambridge University Press, Tel: (914) 937-9600 x 154 or (800) 872-7423. Fax: (914) 937-4712. Email: WWW:

Vanishing Treasures of the Philippine Rain Forest. L.R. Heaney and J.C. Regalado, Jr. 1998. This full-color book celebrates the extraordinary diversity of life found in the Philippine rain forest, home to one of the greatest concentrations of unique species of terrestrial vertebrates of any place on earth. The authors relate how this profusion of life came to exist in the islands, and explains why the imminent destruction of this forest threatens not only its unique plants and animals but also the economic and social well-being of the Philippine nation. Orders: The University of Chicago Press, Tel: (773) 702-0279. Fax: (773) 702-9756. Email: WWW:

The Cordillera Del Condor Region of Ecuador and Peru: A Biological Assessment. T.S. Schulenberg and K. Awbrey. 1998. The University of Chicago Press. 232 pp. $17.00. ISBN: 1-881173-15-1. Orders: The University of Chicago Press, Tel: (773) 702-0279. Fax: (773) 702-9756. Email: WWW:
A Rapid Assessment of the Humid Forests of South Central Chuquisaca, Bolivia. T.S. Schulenberg and K. Awbrey. 1998. The University of Chicago Press. 84 pp. $17.00. ISBN: 1-881173-1-94. Orders: The University of Chicago Press, Tel: (773) 702-0279. Fax: (773) 702-9756. Email: WWW: