"Rainforests of the World" is a readable, beautifully illustrated patchwork of old and new facts about a vast and complex subject. Its title, however, is a bit misleading: A book that actually described all of the world's tropical and temperate old-growth forests that receive more than 80 inches of rainfall during a year would dwarf the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Indeed, such a book would be impossible; we don't know enough about rain forests to describe them in any comprehensive way, and we are destroying them so fast that we may never know.
Ghillean Prance's text is engaging if hurried, as though he is daunted by the magnitude of it all. His prose is on the level of a field-biology lecture--instructive and lively yet rife with passive voice and awkward sentences. It thus is sometimes incongruous with Art Wolfe's carefully wrought photographs. Prance is a famed botanist, so the level of scientific accuracy is high. But he is not omniscient; he writes that the black vulture lives as far northwest as Washington State. In fact, it is the turkey vulture that does so.
Not even someone as eminent as Prance is qualified to write with authority on all the world's rain forests, and he really doesn't try. He concentrates on tropical South America, which he clearly knows well, with short firsthand accounts of some Southeast Asian places and largely secondhand ones of North and Central America, temperate South America, Africa, Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand. Prance describes so many unusual tropical South American experiences--an anaconda crawling through camp, night forests glowing with phosphorescent fungus, army ants in the house--that his other accounts seem a little programmatic by comparison. Much has been covered frequently before--Malaysian pitcher plants and giant Rafflesia flowers, Borneo swift colonies. These are marvelous things, but one wonders what else there might be that is less well-known. Wolfe's photos provide a wider range than the text, with subjects from every major rain forest area except temperate South America, including the most appealing three-toed-sloth portraits I've seen.
Prance makes a strong case for stopping rain forest destruction, all the more important at a time when the subject is less fashionable than it was a few years ago. He writes that a very small proportion of rain forest is suited to normal agriculture--about 12% of the Amazon Basin, for example. (This should not be surprising. European civilization colonized the Amazon long before the Mississippi Basin. If the Amazon had the potential to be like Iowa, it would be.) Doomed agriculture wastes rain forest areas' more sustainable economic potential--forestry, hydroelectric development. More important, uncut and undammed rain forest land is essential to the planet's climatic stability. About a fourth of the carbon dioxide that is causing global warming originates from tropical deforestation. "We need to place a value on rain forest not solely for the timber and other products of economic use it yields," Prance writes, "but also for the vital environmental role it plays in the control of worldwide climatic patterns." If sea level rises, we will have traded our coastal cities and farmlands for a few years' supply of cheap hardwoods and hamburgers.
Prance doesn't assess present rain forest conservation measures, but wildlife biologist George B. Schaller shoulders that thankless task in the foreword. He is not complacent. "Conservation is in crisis," he writes. "Conventional approaches have not succeeded." By "conventional," Schaller evidently means nature preserves and wildlife-protection laws, but he is equally uneasy about the more recent "sustainable development" approach that tries to encourage rain forest protection through economic self-interest. "[P]roponents of sustainable developments seldom mention limits," he writes; "limits on the number of persons in an area, limits on the number of monkeys killed for food, on the amount of forest degraded. Without enforced limits, there can be no sustainability. Who makes the decisions about access to resources and amounts that may be extracted so that harvest rates do not exceed production? Who can make such complicated decisions? We still know too little to manipulate forests and predict the consequences."
For those who want to do something about this crisis, one of the world's greatest, the book ends with "A Selection of Rainforest Organizations." Surprisingly, Schaller's organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, is not listed--although it is running one of the more ambitious rain forest-related programs, the Paseo Pantera project in Central America. When I mentioned Paseo Pantera to officers of another major conservation organization, they'd never heard of it. Rain forest diversity begets diversity in its defenders, and a little more coordination might help.