GOING, GOING, GONE?
Heaney, L.R. & Regalado, J.C., Jr. (1998) Vanishing Treasures of the Philippine Rain Forest. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, U.S.A. viii +88 pp, figs, tables, illustrations, colour photos. Paperback: Price ú19.25. ISBN 0 914 86819 5.
1998 was the centennial year of the Philippine Declaration of Independence from Spain. Published to coincide with this, and to exemplify The Field Museum of Chicago's commitment to cultural understanding, this volume gives a highly readable introduction to the natural history of the Philippine rain forest, the biogeography of the islands, and the further ecological and socio-economic crisis facing the country should deforestation continue.
The book is a large format, introductory text that is lavishly decorated with illustrations and often stunning colour photographs. Through comparisons to other tropical areas, the authors are highly persuasive in arguing that not only is the flora and fauna of the Philippine's remarkably diverse and endemic, but that it is also disproportionately threatened. Illustrating uniqueness, they say that about 510 species of land-living mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians exist only in the Philippines. They compare this to Brazil which, although 28 times larger, has only about two thirds more endemic species within these taxa. Of the Philippine's lizards, 99 of the 125 species are endemic, with at least 10 being newly recorded within the last 5 years. As they say, however, the irony is that ‘biodiversity is often discovered within earshot of chain saws’.
The book is divided into five main sections. Chapter 1 provides an introduction to biodiversity and ecosystem threats. Chapter 2 covers the biogeography and natural habitat types of the Philippines. Here we learn that the distribution of species across the islands is principally governed by both the rise and fall of sea level through geological time and by which islands are oceanic in origin and which are continental – all sound island biogeographic principles. Indeed, the book provides a nice balance of descriptive natural history and succinct explanation of pattern and process.
Chapter 3, the longest chapter, gives us page-long descriptions of the plants and animals that are the ‘vanishing treasures’ of the book's title. And from the many photographs, the informative and entertaining species descriptions, and the warnings about their often perilous status, it is clear that this is precisely what they are –vanishing treasures. Each page deals with either an individual plant, animal, or specific group. Plants and animals are fairly equally represented, although bat and bird lovers perhaps get the best deal. The concise and entertaining descriptions follow a more or less standard format with physical descriptions, behaviour, habitat preference, population status, economic value, and conservation measures all commonly being dealt with. Many of the species described are fascinating on one or other of these counts. For example, frogs of the genus Platymantis emerge straight from the egg as miniature adults, with no tadpole stage, and a certain species of fruit bat is pregnant for 50 weeks of every year. Even the species names seem entertaining, such as the flame-templed babbler, the Philippine frogmouth, the Philippine tube-nosed fruit bat, or the elephant-foot yam that is aptly known locally as pungapong (it attracts pollinators by smelling pungently of rotting flesh).
Chapter 4 deals with the causes and consequences of deforestation, including an historical account of deforestation which reveals that the Philippines has probably undergone the highest rate of deforestation of all tropical areas (during the 20th Century forest cover decreased from 70 to 7% of land surface area). The negative consequences of deforestation are well documented, with the Philippines illustrating most, if not all, of them. At times the book is sombre reading, made palatable by its lively text and visual presentation.
The last chapter looks at the prospects for rain forest recovery and recognizes that while progress has been made in recent years (and especially in the post-Marcos period), poverty, individual greed and socio-economic inequality remain the root cause of habitat loss and environmental degradation. The book provides an upbeat and optimistic ending that is nevertheless tempered by acknowledging that much needs to be done, and that not much time remains.
My reservations are minor. The first is that technical terms are perhaps too carefully avoided. The most fundamental of these is island biogeography, a term that is only once mentioned and yet is invoked and alluded to often. The principles of island biogeography underpin much of what we know about the distribution of the islands’ wildlife and, moreover, will often be of relevance to current conservation policies. Presumably, such words were largely avoided to increase the palatability for the general public. While aiming to increase readership is no bad thing, gently widening the uninitiated readers’ vocabulary might also enable them to venture on to other less accessible literature. My second reservation is that invertebrates are barely mentioned. Of course, to do justice to the invertebrate life would require another book, if not several, but a specific example – or a general statement about comparative size of biotas, or their roles in rain forest ecology – might have reminded us that not just the large and/or cute are threatened or valuable.
If you yourself want to find out more about the Philippine's rain forests, know of anyone who would like an introductory text to the rain forest ‘treasure trove’, or just want to savour a photographic treat, then this is an enjoyable, informative and affordable book. As the authors say, ‘Extinct species . . . are notoriously poor at providing any benefits’, I could echo that unread books are equally bad at educating and inspiring.
School of Geography, Oxford University