Two lost worlds give us hope

Two lost worlds were in the news last week. One was discovered halfway around the world, but the other is right here at home. The first was a never-before examined patch of tropical rainforest deep in the heart of New Guinea. It’s likely one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth and it shows how little we really know about life on this
planet.


Vol. 7 No. 17
February 15, 2006
Science Matters
by David Suzuki
An international team of scientists recently returned from the Foja
Mountains of New Guinea having discovered 40 extremely rare mammals
(including the golden-mantled tree kangaroo which was thought to have been
hunted to near extinction), four new butterfly species, a new bird species,
20 new frog species and many previously unknown plant species. Having never
encountered humans, some of the creatures were so unafraid of people that
researchers could simply pick them up off the ground.
That places such as this still exist is cause for hope. With well over six
billion people on the planet and an insatiable appetite for resources,
pristine places are becoming increasingly rare and species are disappearing
at an alarming rate. Yet scientists have only studied a small percentage of
life on Earth. Researchers estimate that there are literally millions of
species out there that we have never examined and have no clue what they do
in an ecosystem. As Oxford entomologist George McGavin points out: in a
tropical rainforest, every second or third insect you pick up is probably
unknown to science.
The other lost world in the news last week is also a remote and incredibly
diverse rainforest – but this one is in Canada. British Columbia’s north
and central coast, known as the Great Bear Rainforest, is unique, it is
special and it contains creatures found nowhere else in the world. Most
people know about the Kermode bears that live on this coast. They’re a
white version of the black bear, found only in this area. And their
differences extend to more than just fur colour: researchers are finding
that they behave differently too.
Wolves of the Great Bear are also different – smaller, more agile and
specially adapted to forage for the bounty of sea life found along the
shore. Then there are the salmon, which researchers have found are vital to
the health of the forests and many land-dwelling creatures. Hundreds of
unique runs of salmon find their way back to the Great Bear every year to
spawn; their bodies providing nourishment to the wildlife, the trees and
the soil.
The Great Bear Rainforest made international news last week because the
B.C. government, along with First Nations, environmental groups and the
forest industry, have drafted a plan to protect a portion of it. That’s
good news for science and good news for the people who depend on the health
of this ecosystem for their livelihoods.
The story is only partially complete, however, as discussions are still
underway as to what kind of logging will take place in the parts of the
Great Bear outside the protected areas. This is critical because
unprotected areas make up more than 70 per cent of the land base and
contain the majority of salmon streams and much of the best wildlife habitat.
Scientists have only just begun to understand this magnificent region and
all the life within it. The recent agreement, if combined with truly
sustainable logging practices outside the protected areas, could keep this
ecosystem functioning, allow economic activities such as tourism and
logging to co-exist and give scientists a chance to understand more about
Canada’s own lost world.
It’s an opportunity we would be foolish to pass up.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.
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