If I ask you to imagine a tropical forest, your mind will almost certainly conjure up images of steamy jungles filled with towering broadleaf trees. Rain cascades through the canopy, drenching the monkeys, parrots and Indians who live beneath it. Are you visualizing misty mountains and flooded forests, mandering rivers, mosses and ferns, frogs and fungi? In all probability, yes you are!
Would you then be surprised if I told you that many tropical habitats can be as dry as a desert? Or that bordering some of the world’s most humid jungles are greats swaths of arid forests, where the trees look dead and the “rivers” are waterless trenches? On first glance, they don’t appear to be tropical at all, but this seemingly inhospitable ecosystem is teeming with life. Monkeys, jaguars, parrots, butterflies, snakes, frogs, bats, anteaters, wild pigs and tapirs all call the dry forest home, as do myriad of other species.
It is an incredibly diverse habitat that once covered more of the world’s surface than rainforests do. Just 500 years ago, an immense and ancient forest spanned the entire Pacific coastline from California through to Panama and Ecuador, covering an area of 200000 square miles. Although various dry forest types can be found in Asia, Africa and Australia, true tropical dry forests are found only in Latin America.
The forests themselves are not permanently parched; otherwise they could never support the biodiversity that they do. Nota single drop of rain falls for nearly six months, but when the drought breaks, as it does each and every year, torrential downpours occur on an almost daily basis.
Overnight, a dry and brittle scene becomes a green and vibrant jungle. Rivers flow and fish and frogs miraculously appear in them, birds migrate to feast on the billions of insects, which consume millions of tons of fresh new foliage. Flowers bloom, fruit grows and everyone feasts. Times are learner during the dry months, but enough rain falls during the wet season to ensure that a few water holes remain full throughout the year.
The seasonal variations are visually dramatic. During the dry season, trees their leaves to conserve moisture, but once the rains arrive, the forest bursts into life. Sadly, during the past 500 years, most of the wood from dry forests has been cut or burned down as a result of human expansion. Worldwide, less than two percent of this unique ecosystem survives, and the northern areas of Costa Rica, such as Guanacaste, are home to 40% of it. Unlike rainforests, dry forest soils are quite fertile, so it is not surprising that people migrated into these areas to raise cattle and grow crops. Under a barrage of axes and flames, the pristine forests disappeared almost to the point of extinction. Today, there are no examples of primary old growth remaining.
Traditionally, global conservation groups have concerned themselves with saving the world’s rainforests, and as a result, most of us have never even heard of a tropical dry forest, let alone known that they are almost extinct!
Most principal ecologist would agree that Latin America’s dry forests are more endangered than rainforests. Of what little remains, only 0.08% is protected within national parks or reserves. But, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing those who strive to save the dry forests, there have been some notable success stories.
Dr. Dan Janzen is an eminent scientist from the U.S., who, with pioneering Costa Rican conservationists, works closely with government, local communities and private donors to help people understand why it is important not only to conserve what little is left but to actually grow some of it back.
“Without forests, water tables drop dramatically, and that can have horrible consequences for the subsistence farmer in a hot, dry climate.” Dry forests ecologists agree that the currently protected areas are not large enough to be self-sustaining into the future. “To truly save this habitat,” says Janzen, “We not only need to protect what still remains, but we are going to have to give some land back to ir.”
Wherever you find dry forests reserves, you will usually find areas where small trees have been planted in an effort to help the forests reclaim some of their former range. With hard work and community support, conservation pioneers like Janzen are attempting something that has never been tried before – they are bringing back not just a single species, but an entire tropical habitat from the very brink of extinction.