If you really think that conducting biological research in the tropics is a glamorous occupation, then here’s a reality check.
Laurance’s account makes for a highly readable introduction to what conservation biologists do. In the late 1980s, working toward his Ph.D., the author traveled to the northeastern coast of Australia to have a look at what happens to animal species when their rainforest habitat disappears. (It isn’t good.) His was a timely study undertaken at just the right place, for north Queensland’s forests had been so badly overcut that the logging industry was running out of trees to fell and most of the old-growth forests—“relics of some of the most ancient ecosystems on the planet”—had all but disappeared. As Laurance’s understanding of that catastrophe grew, so did his determination to do something about it—by making an accurate study of the destruction and hoping that his efforts would help Aussie conservationists’ efforts to have the area protected under the World Heritage program of the UN. These pages are full of dangerous and irritable critters—leeches and vipers, cane toads and cassowaries—but the real perils the author faced came from human quarters, residents of the outback who were convinced that “World Heritage listing would allow communist countries like the Soviet Union to tell people in north Queensland what to do with their land.” The charge was, Laurance writes, ludicrous but widely accepted, and, as a presumed agent of international Bolshevism, he and his coworkers were the subjects of threats and at least one very real attempt to kill them. Evidently a smooth talker, Laurance managed eventually to disarm most of his opponents. In the end, he relates, most of the loggers left the forest, off to seek their fortunes in gold mines elsewhere in Queensland, and in their place came enough environmentally minded tourists to sustain the remaining locals—no great victory, but victory enough.
A lucid, highly readable report on ecological science on the front lines.