Rain Forests around the World

Tropical rain forests occur in all three of the world's tropical regions: Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. The forests in each region resemble one another, but each contains a distinctive group of plant and animal species.

The Americas

About half of all the rain forests in the world are found in the American tropics (neotrop-ics). The largest expanse of forest—more than 2.6 million square miles—is in the Amazon basin. Rain forests also extend from the Pacific coast of Ecuador and Colombia through Central America to southern Mexico and along the Atlantic coast of Brazil.

Neotropical rain forests contain a rich assortment of plant species. A survey of five acres of forest in the Brazilian Amazon recorded 502 species of plants. Twenty of these species were new to science. Important timber trees such as mahogany, rosewood, and tropical cedar are found in neotropical rain forest, and rubber, cocoa, Brazil nuts, cashews, heart of palm, vanilla, and avocados are also native here.

The rain forests of tropical America are known to contain about 300 to 400 species of birds, 50 to 100 species of mammals, and more than 500 species are butterflies. There are more bats here than anywhere else in the world. Toucans, parrots, sloths, and monkeys feed in the forest canopy. Capybaras, coatis, tapirs, and ocelots forage along the forest floor. The Amazon River contains about half of all the known species of freshwater fish, the piranha being the most notorious example. Neotropical rain forests are home to a variety of native peoples. The Yanomami of northern Brazil, the Shibipo of Peru, the Kuna of Panama, and the Lacandon Maya of southern Mexico all depend on the rain forest for their livelihood.


Rain forests cover about 1.2 million square miles in the Asian tropics. They grow in western and southern India and extend eastward through Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Large blocks of forest occur in Indonesia, particularly in Kalimantan (Indone sian Borneo) and Irian Jaya, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. There is also a narrow belt of rain forest along the northeastern coast of Australia.

Asian rain forests are unique in that a single family of trees, the dipterocarps, forms a dominant part of the canopy on many sites. Dipterocarp trees produce valuable timber (meranti) and resins useful for varnish and caulking (damar). The seeds of some species contain an edible fat that is similar to chocolate (illipe butter). Pitcher plants, rattan, gutta percha (a latex used in dentistry), and numerous edible fruits such as durian, rambutan, mango, litchi, and banana are native to the rain forests of Asia. The world's largest flower, the parasitic Rafflesia, is also found here.

These forests are home to hornbills, flying foxes, orangutans, gibbons, wild pigs, tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses. The island of Borneo alone has more than 200 mammal species, 500 resident and visiting bird species, 166 species of snakes, and 183 species of amphibians. There are tens of thousands of species of beetles in Asian rain forests.

The nomadic Penan of interior Borneo rely exclusively on the rain forest for subsistence and rarely practice agriculture. They are one of the last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers in the world. Another Bornean group, the Lun Dayeh of Sarawak, are excellent rice farmers. The Lua people of Thailand harvest more than 200 wild plant species from the rain forest for food and other purposes.


The African tropics contain about 810,000 square miles of rain forest. The forested area centers on the Zaire basin and extends westward through the Congo, Cameroon, and Gabon to the Atlantic Ocean. Small patches of rain forest also occur on the east coast of Madagascar.

African rain forests are not as rich in plant species as are the rain forests of South America or Asia. Only 50 species of palm grow here, as compared with 1,300 species in the Asian tropics. There are only 4 species of bamboo, and bromeliads are absent. Small tracts of African rain forest contain from 50 to 100 species of trees. A number of excellent timber species, such as African mahogany and ebony, are native to the African tropics. Other well-known plant resources from the region include cola nuts, the oil palm, and coffee.

The rain forests of tropical Africa contain gorillas, mandrills, and chimpanzees. Gorillas and chimpanzees forage on the ground as well as in the trees. Mandrills, with their brightly colored faces, confine themselves to the forest understory. Squirrels and monkeys share the canopy with more than 300 species of birds, lorises, bush-babies, and golden pottos. The okapi, a half-deer, half-zebralike animal, roams the forest floor. Bush pigs and peafowl are also ground-dwellers in these forests.

Forest-dwelling people in the African tropics are collectively known as pygmies. The Mbuti pygmies live in the Ituri forest in northern Zaire. They are partly nomadic and live in groups in simple huts. To the west, the Baka inhabit the rain forests of southern Cameroon, and the Aka are found in the northern Congo.

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