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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : July 2000 : Rainforest loss our great loss too

Rainforest loss our great loss too

By Catherine Yule
New Straits Times (Malaysia)
July 11, 2000

- TROPICAL rainforests once covered 14 per cent of the Earth's surface, but this has decreased to six per cent. If current rates of forest destruction continue, there will be no rainforest left in 40 years' time. Over 20 million hectares of tropical rainforests are lost each year (an area more than half the size of Japan). The rapid forest loss has generated worldwide concern. Deforestation could be the greatest environmental threat that developing countries have to face this century. When tropical rainforests are destroyed, we lose irreplaceable genetic material that could, for example, provide cures for illnesses, such as cancer, or new food sources.

There are also links between forest loss, wood burning and the greenhouse gas effect. The greenhouse effect is causing world temperatures to rise at an alarming rate. If it is not reversed or slowed down we face climate change, melting of the world's ice sheets and a sea-level rise which would drown low-lying islands and coastal cities.

On a local scale, rainforests maintain the integrity of river catchments. When forest is removed, erosion of the soil ensues, and rivers become polluted with sediment which is then washed into the sea where it can destroy coral reefs and other marine ecosystems. Removal of forest also alters the climate, causing higher temperatures and lower rainfall.

Forest destruction in Malaysia is driving many species to extinction. A total of 286 mammals have been recorded here, of which 27 occur nowhere else in the world, and 42 are endangered (15.9 per cent of total species). Tigers, orang utan, elephants, rhinoceros, tapir, leopards, otters, civets, porcupine, shrews, bats and 35 species of birds are threatened with annihilation as their habitats are shrinking.

A recent study by the World Conservation Monitoring said that about 7,388 (nine per cent) tree species of the between 80,000 and 100,000 on the planet may be threatened with extinction without significant steps to reverse current trends.

Most of the threatened species exist in the tropics, and Malaysia tops the list with 958 species, followed by Indonesia (551) and Brazil (462). Naturally, forests contain more than trees, and it is the small orchids, ferns and other plants which may be even more endangered.

Now 2.7 per cent of the Malaysian land area is protected with 1.7 per cent partially protected, and 4.4 per cent totally or partially protected. Yet 40 per cent is subject to a high degree of human disturbance. It is, thus, important to protect as much forest area as possible.

Malaysian rainforests attract tourists from all over the world. Taman Negara is world famous. Those of us living in Kuala Lumpur are lucky to have rainforests nearby, such as at the Gombak Forest Reserve, the Malaysia Agricultural Park, and the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. We must do what we can to preserve our heritage and to ensure that our children and grandchildren will also have the scientific, recreational, educational and aesthetic benefits of tropical rainforests.

Dr Catherine Yule is a lecturer in environmental management at the Monash University branch campus in PJ.



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