Empty Forests Syndrome: Detriments to Biodiversity

Threats primarily caused by humans are becoming increasingly detrimental to biodiversity throughout the world.  The actions of humans, primarily hunting in tropical forest ecosystems, have already caused the ecological extinction of a multitude of wild species and continue to cause the reduction of biodiversity.  Unsustainable hunting is neither beneficial to the ecosystems being effected nor the communities of people dependent on the species for food supplies.

Conservation is “essential to conserve genetic diversity in order to ensure that… species [have] a good chance of surviving in the foreseeable future.”[1]  Extinction levels are increasing at an exponential rate and without any conservation efforts.   “[A]t least a fifth of the species of plants and animals would be gone or committed to early extinction by 2030, and half by the end of the century.”[2]  Accordingly, there is a dire need to promote conservation as a means to achieve biodiversity.[3]  Current efforts to conserve tropical ecosystems are failing because there is a general concentration of areas with big megaphone species, while neglecting smaller areas where they do not exist.[4]  Since poaching of larger animals tends to be the topic of headline news, there is less of a national effort to protect smaller animals, even though they are equally as important to ecosystems.

The deterioration of forest ecosystems have become known as the “empty forests syndrome,” which is generally caused by issues such as “lack of funding for parks, dearth of wildlife rangers, and new roads and development projects.”[5]  Without resources to fight off poaching and other detriments to ecosystems, an increasing number of species are going extinct.  Poaching from poor local communities in the tropical forest are becoming more popular due to the higher cost of purchasing domesticated protein sources as compared to the cost of bush-meat hunting.   Without any other feasible choice, members of these local communities must resort to bush-meat as their primary food source.  Additionally, in some areas, such as the Amazon, Congo, Southeast Asia, and Oceana, bush-meat is in high demand and considered a delicacy.[6]   Furthermore, as these rural communities are being developed and increasingly accessible through the building of new roads, there is potential for more areas to become deteriorated.

Although, current legislation in many regions bans wildlife trade altogether, an outright ban has been shown to be ineffective.[7]  With no other options, local communities, which lack funding and access to the domestic meat found in urban areas, continue to resort to bushmeat hunting as a food supply.  Since a complete ban on hunting is impractical, legislation should be aimed at achieving sustainable hunting.  At the 2011 Convention on Biodiversity, it was suggested that, “A way of creating a legitimate channel for bushmeat would be to allow restricted hunting and/or trade through quotas.”[8]  Implementing regulations that place a cap on hunting will be more efficient than current regulations, allowing legal entities to oversee the trade, rather than hunting occurring through an illegal black market.  Moreover, it will ensure that sustainable levels of wildlife are being hunted rather than a free-for-all where wildlife levels are depleting at unmanageable levels.  If regulations placing a quota system on bush-meat hunting are created, trade should be limited to local communities, which are dependent on bushmeat for a food source.  Thus, commercial hunting of bush-meat in urban areas should remain illegal.

In areas where bush-meat hunting remains legal, logging concessions supply most of the urban areas with their supply.[9]  The Center for Forestry Research suggest, “increasing certification and forcing logging companies to halt hunting and export of bushmeat from their concessions.”[10]  Rhett Harrison, a tropical ecologist, suggests that success should not be measured on the amount of land being protected but rather on the effectiveness of enforcement of regulations.[11]  For instance, fines that strictly punish individuals selling bush-meat in urban areas could be one measure for achieving this end.[12]  Moreover, there must also be an effort to promote education and show local governments how important ecosystems are to their economy.[13]

The legal community is faced with the substantial task of preserving the world’s tropical ecosystems and can only achieve this through the promotion of biodiversity and effectively enforcing regulations against violators.  Conserving wildlife and their habitat in developing countries, which currently depend on these sources to survive, is not an easy assignment.  However, once local communities realize that the end result of their practices will be the deterioration of these sources, enforcing current regulations and creating more stringent ones will be more favorable.



[1] Paul A. Reese, An Introduction to Zoo Biology and Management (2011).

[2] Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life,102 (2003).

[3] Reese, Supra note 44 (Biodiversity is “. . . the variability among living organisms from all sources including . . . terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species and of ecosystems”).

[4] Jeremy Hance, Majority of Protected Tropical Forests “empty” due to Hunting, mongabay.com (Feb. 8th, 2012), http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0208-hance_emptyforestsyndrome.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. “In Ecuador, for example, the bushmeat trade has expanded from sustainable indigenous hunting to a much larger trade serving restaurants along major highways in the Amazon.”

[7] Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2011, Livelihood Alternatives for the Unsustainable Use of Bushmeat, CBS Technical Series No. 60, Sept. 11, 2011, at 37, available at www.traffic.org/non-traffic/non-traffic_pub17.pdf (“deeming bushmeat categorically illegal does not offer the possibility

of developing “participatory management models or to broaden the governance reform”, and is also likely to

render the trade inconspicuous and encourage the bribery of monitoring officials”).

[8] Id. at 37.

[9] R. Nasi, A. Taber, & N. Van Vliet, Empty Forests, Empty Stomachs? Bushmeat and Livelihoods in the Congo and Amazon Basins, 13 International Forestry Review 355, 363 (2011).

[10] Id.

[11] Jeremy Hance, Majority of Protected Tropical Forests “empty” due to Hunting, mongabay.com (Feb. 8th, 2012), http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0208-hance_emptyforestsyndrome.html.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. “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, and prefer instead to invest in golf courses,” Harrison writes, adding that “partnerships with tour operators and government tourist agencies may therefore be an effective way of lobbying for improved wildlife management.”


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