Wake Forest University professor researches ways to protect the Amazon

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- For 20 years, Miles Silman has watched as the last great rain forests on the planet slowly shrink.

Sometimes, it’s because they’re being logged for their timber.

“They're also being converted to agriculture,” Silman said. “As we add more and more people to the planet, we have to feed them and some of the last arable land is in tropics and so tropical forests are being converted into soybean fields.”

Silman studies this as a professor of conservation biology at Wake Forest University. He helps run the university’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation. One of the things they’ve discovered over the years is how connected everything in a forest’s eco-system is and how removing a seemingly ancillary part of it affects everything else.

“The other ways that tropical forests are being converted that people don't think about as much is when animals get hunted out of a forest, 90 percent of the trees in a tropical forest rely on animals to either disperse their seeds or to pollinate them. So, when you take those animals out of the forest, you've basically taken the forests away and you're left with a collection of trees and those trees are going to change through time,” Silman said. “We think of organisms out in the wild as just adornments - you know, 'There's a plant, there's an animal.' And one of the things the research really drives home is that these things are related and, when you start to separate the animals from the forest, you lose the forest. Even things as loosely related to trees as a jaguar.”

The most recent challenge that Silman and his colleagues face is the discovery of gold in the Peruvian Andes.

“The human misery that follows a mining boom - a gold rush is - is almost greater than the forest destruction,” he said.

Silman and his team are trying to teach the locals how they can make a living off the land while not destroying it.

“We're going to show them, in many cases, the only way to do it where you leave something behind that you, yourself, would want to live on. Right now, it's smash-and-grab,” he said.

See what mining has done to the region in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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