for National Geographic News
The warblers, lemurs, and bees that tweet, screech, and buzz high in the treetops are sharing their once hidden domain with eco-tourists and scientists who've begun to wander along walkways that lead from the ground way up into the canopy.
The walkways are suspended from towers or the branches of trees, allowing people to look canopy-dwelling wildlife in the eyes and smell flowers that bloom a few hundred feet closer to the sun.
Tourists flock by the thousands to stroll with local guides along walkways erected in places like Ghana's Kakum National Park and the Amazonian rain forest of Peru. The dollars the tourists spend pay for park maintenance, local community development, and the conservation of open space.
Researchers sit for hours on elevated platforms and study an ecosystem that was until recently as cloaked in mystery as the depths of the seas.
"The canopy is like a leafy aerial continent, elevated on stilts, called the treetops," said H. Bruce Rinker of the Center for Canopy Ecology at the Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota, Florida. "When you get up there in the aerial continent you have a different perspective on the forest that is broader and healthier than what you have on the ground."
John Kelson of Greenheart Conservation Company in Vancouver, British Columbia, which builds canopy walkways around the world, said the systems of bridges and platforms suspended in the treetops are also a boon to tourism that begets conservation.
"When you integrate tourism, research, and conservation in an economically viable business, it is kind of a winning approach," he said.
His company is currently developing plans to bring canopy walkways to the lemur-rich rain forest in Madagascar's Ranomafana National Park; a rare, intact patch of cloud forest on the eastern slope of the Andes in Peru; and a selectively-logged old-growth forest in North Vancouver, British Columbia.
"In an economically based world, conservation can sometimes pay for itself," said Kelson. "What we are doing is another approach to sustainable development."
In 1994, founders of the Greenheart Conservation Company constructed the walkway in Ghana's Kakum National Park for Conservation International, the Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization. The walkway attracts over 80,000 visitors per year and nets about U.S. $230,000 annually, according to Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei, a coordinator for programs in Ghana with Conservation International.
"It gives an opportunity to see the canopies where primates enjoy, where birds sit and sing, and where most birds build their nests," he said. "It gives people the opportunity to walk in space, even though they are not in the plane or spacecraft. It is the opportunity to look down and assess nature in various layers."
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