Fighting Back Against 'the Nothing'

Deforestation is an insidious, biodiversity-sucking void.

May 28, 2015

Photo: Calibas/Wikimedia Commons

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, there are few things more terrifying than the Nothing, the antagonist of The NeverEnding Story.

What is the Nothing? It’s a howling maelstrom of darkness that threatens to swallow up the universe and everything good within it. “It’s the emptiness that’s left,” as the wolfish G’mork puts it. “It is like a despair destroying this world.”

Now for the bad news: Something very like the Nothing—an absence that endangers the life around it—is here in the real world, from the rainforests of Brazil to the pine plantations of Australia. It’s called forest fragmentation. A new study published in Science Advances shows that it doesn’t just diminish wooded areas—it also weakens the forest’s remaining ecosystems that were supposedly left intact.

The Nothing’s edge

Drawing data from more than six dozen studies conducted over the last 35 years, a team of scientists analyzed satellite images of all the forests on earth. They found that 70 percent of forestland lies within a kilometer of its edge. Worse still, 20 percent is within 100 meters of the edge.

Why should being near the edge matter? Not only does it mean that forests are smaller, but the study found that as we chop and burn deeper into the woods, we carve up habitats—with a disastrous effect on biodiversity, natural nutrient cycles, and overall biomass.

“When you fragment any kind of habitat, whether it’s forest or something else, you end up losing a whole bunch of species over time,” says Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist and biodiversity specialist at George Mason University. Lovejoy is one of the main contributors to the new paper and the initiator of the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, which has been studying the effects of fragmentation on the Amazon rainforest since 1979. (In the NeverEnding Story, he’d be Bastian.)

Bye-Bye, Birdie

Lovejoy says that if you cut a section of Amazon into a 250-acre parcel—a seemingly hefty chunk—half of the bird species native to the forest interior would disappear within 15 years. The increased sunlight would cause some to fly away to better forests (if they can find any). Others may find themselves more vulnerable to predators (who can now penetrate deeper into the woods), or unable to find food or a mate.

And for some, like the white-plumed antbird, it gets even more complicated. This funny-looking flier preys not upon ants, as its name might suggest, but on the tiny creatures the ants kick up. Army ants march through the rainforest in columns that can number a million strong. These hordes are so ferocious that insects and animals literally run for their lives. That’s when the antbirds strike.

Photo: Francisco Enríquez/NBII Image GalleryA white-plumed antbird

“These birds make their living by following army ant swarms, swooping down in advance of the ants and picking up these fleeing animals and insects,” says Lovejoy. “The birds are letting the ants function as beaters in a hunt. It’s quite a spectacle.”

But those ant armies have to take breaks from marching. Every three weeks the whole colony stops marauding and forms a giant, throbbing ball of antdom while the queen lays eggs within. The warriors protect the nest and the foraging stops—and so does the birds’ free lunch.

In a healthy forest, the antbirds would just find another ant army to follow. But if a fragment of forest only has one ant colony, the birds leave and may never return.

Fighting Back

Luckily, there’s room in this fight for more than one hero. Allow me to introduce Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University and our story’s Atreyu (just go with it). “We have diced and sliced and fragmented forests,” says Pimm, who was not affiliated with Lovejoy’s study. “It’s a major issue, because forest fragments are places where species go extinct very, very quickly.”

When Pimm’s not teaching, he travels the world as president of a small but fierce nonprofit called Saving Species. When we spoke via Skype, he had just wrapped up a long day searching for biodiversity hot spots in southern China's forests. To hear him tell it, fighting back against the Nothing may not be as difficult as it sometimes feels. “We can encourage nature to come back and still leave room for our activities,” he says. “It’s a matter of thinking more strategically.”

Photo: stevehdcA family of golden lion tamarins

One of the best examples is the fight to save the golden lion tamarin. This tiny, charismatic monkey is native to the coastal forests of Brazil, where forest fragmentation caused its numbers to drop below just 200 individuals back in 1969, rendering it essentially extinct in the wild.

Even after an international, multi-zoo reintroduction program for the primate began in 1984, the last golden lion tamarins soon ran out of suitable forest habitat. So Saving Species, along with a local conservation organization called the Associação Mico-Leão Dourado, started buying up and reforesting degraded cattle pastures—thus reconnecting the little lion’s lairs.

Twenty years after conservation efforts began, there are now 1,700 tamarins swinging through the trees in an area that was once nothing more than a relative Swamp of Sadness.

CPR for the planet

Pimm calls his vision for fixing the problem of forest fragmentation “Connect, Protect, Restore,” or CPR. It jibes with Lovejoy’s own prescription. “We have bits of nature embedded in human-dominated landscapes,” he says. “What we need is to flip the model.”

The good news is that, despite the scary numbers in Lovejoy’s research, both he and Pimm are hopeful that it’s not too late. Reconnecting forests takes time and money, but the tamarins have taught us (along with Bastian, Atreyu, and the gang) that we do, in fact, have the power to ward off the Nothing. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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