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Hearing Dan Janzen...Listening for our Furture

by Peter Sterling

Sometimes an academic scientist who scales the ivory tower can grasp the broader scene. But rarely is a professor's broad view coupled to organizational skills that allow him actually to change a scene for the better. Such a rare one is Penn's Daniel Janzen. Renowned for his scientific contributions to the ecology of tropical forests, Professor Janzen in 1984 received the Crafoord Prize ($150,000) from the Swedish Royal Academy. This is equivalent to the Nobel Prize in Ecology. In 1989 he received a MacArthur Fellowship ($350,000), and in 1992 he was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. This month Janzen was awarded Japan's Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences ($400,000). The Kyoto Prize recognizes, not merely Janzen's science, but also his broad contribution to humanity.

The contribution sounds simple. Alarmed at the precipitous de-struction of "his" patch of the world's forest richest in biodiversity (northwest corner of Costa Rica), Janzen devised a plan to staunch the loss and begin to reverse it. Over the last dozen years, collaborating with his biologist wife, Dr. Winifred Hallwachs, he has successfully implemented this plan, thereby increasing immeasurably the survival prospects of an estimated 235,000 terrestrial species. Moreover, he has created a model for conservation and recovery of rainforest that is inspiring others to copy it across the tropical world.

Neither sentimentalist nor romantic, Janzen accepts that humans evolved fighting Nature: the impulse is in our genes. At first we won only occasionally; for example, 10,000 years ago we extinguished all the North American megafauna, such as the great mammoths and saber-toothed cats.

But now our power is complete, and even the wildest lands belong to the human garden. A garden produces crops and provides pleasure. So Janzen's plan to preserve remaining wild land and to recover some that has been lost is to:

(1) buy land for the wildland garden;
(2) identify its "crops", including new molecules, sink for CO2, ecotourism;
(3) educate local people to manage and to harvest.

Toward these ends Janzen has invested all of his prize monies (about $1,000,000) and all of his personal income beyond the minimum needed for sustenance.

Janzen and Hallwachs live and study in the dry tropical forest of what began as a small national park, Santa Rosa, that extends from the Pacific ocean to about 10 miles inland. East of the old park boundary, the lowland forest becomes moist, then rainy, as it rises on the slopes of several extinct volcanoes. These peaks harbor pristine cloud forest. This region of Guanacaste Province is incredibly rich, containing an estimated 2.3% of the world's terrestrial species. As land surrounding Santa Rosa Park was cleared for cattle grazing, Janzen noticed many species begin to decline. He realized that Santa Rosa, though protected, was too small to harbor the scale of interactions required to sustain even a fraction of its 235,000 species. He also foresaw that, as global warming dries out Santa Rosa's lowlands (which it is doing), many species would need to migrate up to cooler, moister elevationsor be extinguished.

Janzen convinced Costa Rica's Government to designate a region including Santa Rosa, but 10-fold larger and with highlands, as the Guanacaste Conservation Area. Next, he established experimentally that old ranches and farms would spontaneously regenerate back into wildland forestif the plant and animal species still exist to repopulate it. Then he dickered with local landowners, small and large, to buy up patches and strips that border the wildlands. Over a decade he managed to greatly expand the wildland garden and to provide a corridor from the turtle beaches on the Pacific to cloudforests of the continental divide.

A key goal was to connect these newly protected regions to Rincon Volcano, an old, small national park to the south. Rincon, being small like Santa Rosa, cannot sustain its huge biodiversity. But Janzen recognized that it could be saved by connecting it to the larger Guanacaste Conservation Area. He also noticed that Rincon rises above the other peaks of Guanacaste. A link would allow species to climb yet higher and thus better survive global warming. Janzen saw that what the animals need now is not an Ark, but a Bridge, and in 1992 he began to build one.

First, there was a strip across the highland for which he negotiated long and hard, but the price was unreachable. Finally, he located a strip of lowland rainforest connecting northern Rincon to the southeastern side of the next volcano. This strip would convert the eastern face of the Guanacaste Conservation Area into a continuous band of forest 33 kilometers long. Moreover, it would provide enough rainforest at 400-600 m elevation to sustain life against the rising heat and dryness. The 1225 acres that constitute the Bridge cost $533,000, and in July, 1997 Janzen made a downpayment with funds raised from 12 donors including the Swedish and US Children's Rainforest Funds. He lacks $350,000 to complete the deal. (This amounts to 800 unsecured acreswhich he would like to see become Penn's Bridge.)

Janzen has also moved forward with the other key needs for the Gardento identify its crops and to educate its stewards. The forest contains myriad biologically potent molecules and genes of potential medical and industrial use. To develop "bio-prospecting" for such potential crops Janzen helped negotiate contracts with corporations, such as Merck, to conduct screens for potential products. These contracts have become models for bio-prospecting all across the Third World. Bio-prospecting requires local people as bio-prospectors, to collect, identify, and culture the organisms. Toward this end Janzen trains Guanacaste high school graduates as "para-taxonomists", thus creating a new profession for the community. He also provides funds for teaching forest biology in the local schools.

Finally, to manage the wildland garden, now encompassing 276,000 acres (plus 160,000 acres of ocean), Janzen raised over $12,000,000 for an endowment. The income supports a staff of 130 who tend the wildland garden and, equally important, who establish a tradition of knowing and caring for the garden that will carry forward to future generations.

Janzen will give an illustrated lecture, How we are saving the tropical wildlands in Costa Rica, Thursday, December 11, at 4 p.m. in Reunion Hall of the John Morgan Building, School of Medicine. I commend it to all of my colleagues and friends.

Dr. Sterling is professor of neuroscience at the School of Medicine

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, November 25, 1997, Volume 44, No. 14